I had the great pleasure of meeting yesterday an interesting family of naturalists from the town of Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada. They are Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents, Wendy Boothroyd and Ken Madsen. Malkolm is 15 years old and is on a year-long quest with his parents to see 500 species of birds in North America, traveling exclusively by bicycle. As of “February 29th, they had traveled over 9400 miles and identified 459 species of birds” (quote from Malkolm’s blog: http://www.birdyear.blogspot.com/).
Last night my friend Bruce, better known as “Sleazeweasel,” cooked up a feast of spicy catfish and greens, and Ann W supplied a vegetarian rice dish. Sleaze’s cooking was done on his backyard campfire as we sat around it to stay warm while drinking chilled adult beverages on this nippy eve, and Malkolm remained inside to work on his journal.
After dinner was done I asked everyone to tell bird stories. I kicked off the event with my own story about the woodpecker and the tomatoes, followed later by my story about the double-crested cormorant and gafftopsail catfish, both of which I have posted already on this blog. Several other good bird stories were told by Ken, Bruce and Eric. These anecdotes reminded me of this story about a yellow-billed cuckoo.
Back in the mid-1970s, I wearied of society and decided to try my luck at living off the land. I quit my job and sold many of my trappings, and set off for the Ocala National Forest, which is a largely xeric ecosystem dominated by sand pine (Pinus clausa) scrub. Between this habitat and the Oklawaha River Floodplain forest is a relatively narrow band of beautiful mesic hammock forest dominated by live oak (Quercus virginianus), laurel oak (Q. hemisphaerica), southern magnolia (Magnolia grandoflora) and pignut hickory (Carya glabra).
One day in April I was down at the river’s edge washing breakfast dishes when I suddenly heard from across the river within the floodplain forest a loud “KOOK-KOO!” It sounded like a cuckoo clock announcing one o’clock. My vertebrate zoology teacher had taught us that the North American cuckoos never made that call, that it was made only by European cuckoos. I retrieved my binoculars and studied the forest over there, but never did see anyone wandering around with a cuckoo clock in hand.
Two days later I heard the same call at about the same time of day, mid-morning. The Cornell Bird Lab states that the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) has 6 calls, and provides textual interpretations of 3 of them, but says nothing about the “kook-koo” call (http://tinyurl.com/2udc2k). Cornell also has two recordings of one of the yellow-billed cuckoo’s calls (http://tinyurl.com/2l8z9l).
I am left wondering just what it was that I heard on those mornings? Was it a rare type of call that the yellow-billed cuckoo is not otherwise known to make? If so, I was quite lucky to have heard it! This would not be an unusual occurrence, as other birds are known to have many more calls than the average person ever hears. The common crow, for instance, has been said to have over 100 distinct calls, yet most naturalists I know have heard fewer than a dozen of them. The Cornell Lab, in fact, has links to very few yellow-billed cuckoo calls, and the ones it does have are faint, so perhaps this species’ calls have not been sufficiently sampled?
Could the call have been made by an escaped pet European, or common, cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)? Wikipedia states The (London) Times reports (http://tinyurl.com/3786l2) that the common cuckoo ordinarily first makes its eponymous call around April14th, which is approximately when I heard that bird. Coincidence?
Is there another explanation?