At a Glance
Slipping furtively through leafy thickets, this slim, long-tailed bird is heard more often than seen. It seems even more elusive than the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and is generally seen less often during migration, although the Black-billed is the more common nesting bird toward the north.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Cuckoos, Roadrunners, Anis, Perching Birds
Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Flap/Glide
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
A long-distance migrant, going to South America for the winter. Migrates at night; sometimes heard calling in flight overhead at night during spring.
12" (30 cm). From below, tail looks gray, with narrow white spots. Bill is all black; unlike Yellow-billed Cuckoo, shows no rusty red in wings. Adult has narrow red eye-ring. Juvenile in late summer and fall has buff eye-ring, and its tail may show even less contrast than adult's.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Tan, White
Long, Pointed, Tapered
Long, Rounded, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A series of soft mellow cu-cu-cu-cu notes in groups of 2-5, all on the same pitch.
Chatter, Hoot, Rattle, Whistle
Wood edges, groves, thickets. Breeds mostly in deciduous thickets and shrubby places, often on the edges of woodland or around marshes. Also in second growth of mixed deciduous-coniferous woods, or along their brushy edges. In migration, seeks any kind of dense cover, usually among young trees or tall shrubs.
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2-3, sometimes 4-5. May lay more eggs in seasons when caterpillars are abundant. Eggs blue-green, occasionally mottled darker. Incubation is by both parents, 10-14 days. Occasionally lays eggs in nest of Yellow-billed Cuckoo or other bird. Young: Fed by both parents. May leave nest within a week after hatching, climb about in branches; if disturbed, young bird may "freeze" in upright position, with neck stretched and bill pointed straight up. Age of young at first flight about 3 weeks.
Fed by both parents. May leave nest within a week after hatching, climb about in branches; if disturbed, young bird may "freeze" in upright position, with neck stretched and bill pointed straight up. Age of young at first flight about 3 weeks.
Forages by moving about through shrubs and trees, clambering and hopping among the branches, gleaning insects from foliage.
Caterpillars and other insects. Feeds heavily on caterpillars when available, including hairy types such as tent caterpillars and others; also other insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, others. Also may eat some snails, small fish, eggs of other birds, and berries and small fruits.
In courtship, male feeds female. Nest site is in shrub or low tree, 1-20' above the ground, usually lower than 10', placed among dense branches. May sometimes nest on the ground. Nest (probably built by both sexes) a loose platform of sticks, usually well lined with leaves, grass, pine needles, catkins, other soft material.
Local numbers rise and fall as birds move around in response to caterpillar outbreaks. Surveys suggest no major change in overall population in North America.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Black-billed Cuckoo. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Black-billed Cuckoo
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.