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Anita’s Blog – The Cuckoo's Portentous Call

Updated: May 20

The portentous Rain Crow. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I heard the rain crow, as much a sound of summer for me as singing cicadas. But more than that, I’m one of those who believe the rain crow possesses a foretelling of rain, true to the nickname for the yellow-billed cuckoo. More so than usual, I’m optimistic that the rain crow will bring our drought-afflicted delta some much needed relief.


But it’s early days yet, it is still spring, the bird’s call not quite full throttle – its rattle-purr lacking the guttural knock-knock-knock ending in the pale stillness as the days wake up. All the same, the half inch of rain after the cuckoo’s portentous half call this week was certainly welcome.


The bird itself is as elusive as the rain. But I’m hopeful the return of the cuckoo will bring on the rains and just as hopeful I’ll capture new photos of the attractive bird this year.


In retrospect, as I’ve been reading up on the yellow-billed cuckoo, I believe I saw one take flight from the side of an irrigation ditch as I was driving down a county road prior to the annual end-of-April City Nature Challenge. The noise of the car, or perhaps some innate mystifying congregate signal, flushed a half dozen doves up the incline. Amongst them was the most pristine white underbelly of a long, sleek, slim bird, also angling toward the safety of the vegetation at the top. And then it was gone, and I locked the vision into my memory.


The pure white underbelly view was accented by black wing tips, the fully spread tail nearly a bold black-and-white checkerboard as it flashed in that brief flight. At the time, I had no idea what I had seen, but it was quite amazing to see a pure white bird’s breast in flight so clearly.


Researching for this blog post led to descriptions from All About Birds and the National Audubon Society where they called the yellow-billed cuckoo a “fairly large, long and slim bird with a very long tail,” “From below, the tail has wide white bands and narrower black ones,” and “It is smooth, sleek with long pointed wings.”



Yellow-billed Cuckoo, AKA Rain Crow. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I feel sure that little mystery is cleared up for me. It was the rain crow, the yellow-billed cuckoo, coming back to its summer home. Mostly when we think of migration, it’s of birds passing through the Rio Grande Valley on their way to breeding grounds north of Texas. We don’t normally think of birds flying north to Texas to breed, yet the yellow-billed cuckoos and groove-billed ani breed in our area.


Both birds are a treat for summer entertainment. The cuckoo for its challenge to capture good photos and the ani for its charming antics and ease of adding to my photographic file.


Although both birds are in the Cuculidae Family, rain crows breed nearly all through the eastern half of the United States, while the groove-billed ani barely travels much further north than the Rio Grande Valley.


Interestingly, yellow-billed cuckoos are among the few bird species able to eat hairy caterpillars, according to AllAboutBirds.org. They remove some of the hairs by rubbing the caterpillar against a rough surface. They are also known to eat tent caterpillars, such as occupants of those webby globs that seem to plague our mulberry trees. I don’t try to remove and certainly don’t poison the unsightly webs, hoping nature will take care of the problem before much damage occurs. As far as I can tell, the problem gets taken care of without noticeable complications.


A hairy caterpillar, possibly a Santa Ana Tussock moth caterpillar on a Honey Mesquite tree trunk. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The cuckoos also eat the larger insects that tend to appear sometimes in droves, like cicadas, katydids, grasshoppers and crickets; they snag insects from leaves or dash out like a flycatcher to grab a flying insect. They will chase frogs and lizards on the ground and eat snails.


Yellow-billed cuckoos breed from southeast Canada to northern Mexico and the Caribbean. It is the only cuckoo species in Texas and can be seen from April through November. They migrate primarily to exotic sounding places in South America, especially Peru, Bolivia and as far south as northern Argentina.


In the southern United States, words like portent, foreshadowing, omen, or augury (a practice from ancient Roman religion of interpreting omens from the observed behavior of birds) are often used in conjunction with tales about the rarely seen but oft heard mysterious, yellow-billed cuckoo, whose calls on hot cloudy days often presage rain. We can but hope.


The groove-billed ani, on the other hand, is not mystifying, secretive, nor camera shy. An eBird.org page describes anis as bizarre, coal-black cuckoos with long floppy tails. If you can get a clear look at a profile of a groove-billed ani, I think they are quite regal looking. They favor hanging around in small groups, visibly displaying delight in their pursuit of food.


I watched one wafting in the wind, perched on a thin branch of a young black willow tree, while it honed in on its next meal. It leapt into a thick patch of Texas frog fruit, bobbed up and down like a jack-in-the-box, most likely chasing insects. It eventually took flight, followed by another over to the dense tree growth at the other side of the resaca.


A Groove-billed Ani foraging in Texas Frog Fruit. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Texas frog fruit, Phyla nodiflora, on a sunny afternoon is usually rife with bees, tiny flies and small butterflies.


Texas Frog Fruit. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)


Bordered Patch butterflies frequent Texas Frog Fruit. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Groove-billed ani breed in Texas from near sea level in thick thorn forests of Texas ebony, mesquite, acacia and mimosa, according to the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas. They build bulky nests in trees such as citrus or mimosa bushes at an average height of about eight feet above the ground and in sugarcane fields where nests may be as low as three feet above the ground.


Groove billed Anis aren't as apt as other birds to frequent residential locales but a trip to your favorite nature park can prove fruitful. Take advantage of guided tram rides at our Texas Parks & Wildlife Department state parks.

 

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