A cuckoo causing confusion and consternation, delight and distress….

In the spring this year, I and another birder had the uncommon pleasure of seeing yellow-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus) courting at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. These birds often stay high in trees, hidden by leaves, so it is always a treat to see one of them out in the open. Seeing two together, as the male tenderly offered his lady love a gift, was an unexpected pleasure.

 

 

Also unexpected have been my more frequent sightings of cuckoos in my yard. Last year, I had caught a glimpse of one in a crepe myrtle tree; I thought it was a lucky fluke. This year, I began to see cuckoos in the large trees of my front yard more often, though frequently they were half hidden behind the leaves of the willow oak, red cedar and persimmon. I did hear their identifying calls so I knew when they were around but not in sight.

Then, this past Sunday afternoon as I sat on my front porch photographing birds and insects visiting my flower garden, I suddenly caught sight of a cuckoo flapping about on a makeshift trellis I had arranged around an oak stump where I hope Carolina jasmine and other climbing vines will create a pleasing area.

The spot is popular with chipmunks and Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), as well as many smaller birds like Renee, one of the banded Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) living in my yard.

     

But to see a large cuckoo sprawled on the branches was unexpected and I feared that it had an injured wing after escaping from a hawk attack. I took a few quick photos. Then I approached to get a better look — the bird tried to flutter away but didn’t get far.

I ran inside to get a box and the phone number of a local wildlife rehabilitator. I left a message and managed to get the bird in the box, to which it protested vigorously. When I closed the top, it calmed down and then the rehabilitator returned my call stating that perhaps it was a fledgling – I said it looked like the wing was injured so she asked me to take a photo of it.

When she saw my point-and-shoot camera photo, she said it wasn’t clear whether it was a juvenile or not and asked me to photograph the beak. Young birds have a yellow or bright “lining” where the beak meets the face. This area is called the gape flange and in most birds, the color disappears as they age and the beak becomes firmer.

      

With a slightly better photo of the bird’s head and beak, the rehabilitator informed me that this was indeed a young bird. She also told me that the bird probably was feigning a wing injury to get the parents to come back more quickly with food! On her recommendation, I put the bird back on a stump by the makeshift lattice.

I knew about killdeer adults pretending to have a broken wing and dragging it on the ground to lead predators away from a nesting area. The yellow-billed cuckoo adults will also do this distraction display.

But I had not heard of fledglings engaging in this ruse. The rehabilitator said she had known of crow fledglings that kept this up a couple days, although she didn’t realize cuckoos would do this as she doesn’t get many calls about this species. But, she commented, “birds aren’t stupid; a free meal is a free meal.”

I kept checking on the bird and it stayed on the stump quite a while. Then it hopped down into the leaf litter and made its way over to some large rocks under a cedar tree with low-hanging branches. First, the cuckoo just hung out on the rock. And all this time, it kept that wing stretched out.

Then the bird lunged upward to get onto the branch. At this point, I seriously wondered whether it wasn’t injured after all, perhaps having fallen out of the nest and hurting its wing when it landed. It got a purchase on the limb and continued to keep its wing out. Then it fell off the branch.

       

After a short rest on the rock, the fledgling jumped up on to the branch again and stayed there. I went inside and returned periodically to check on him/her. About 3.5 hours from time I first saw him/her, the bird was still resting on the branch with the wing out. S/he was no longer wary when I came to look but viewed me calmly.

About 30 minutes later, I went back outside for another check and found the bird on the branch, but now with its wings both folded in towards its body. I was really glad that it appeared to be ok and hoped the parents would come for it. I had heard them calling earlier in the afternoon but never saw them approach the offspring, though this may have happened when I went inside for brief periods. And when I finally looked at the first photos I had shot in quick succession, I saw a couple where the bird had drawn in both wings to hop about, only to stretch out its wing later again.

 

When it was almost time for me to leave for a theater engagement with a friend, I went back out to check one more time and discovered my cuckoo friend was gone. I examined the cedar tree to see if it was further up, as well as the trees and ground all around, and could find no sign of him/her. I hoped that s/he finally decided to give up the display and just flew to a better place. I did check the area the next two days but did not see the bird again.

Then, this morning, a distressing finding started off my day. When I went outside, a neighbor boy was staring at the ground in front of my street-side willow oak. When I got there, the cuckoo lay dead at the street edge. He said he had seen the bird yesterday sitting on the road “with a broken wing”. I wish I had seen it – I don’t know if the bird had really been injured after all, was feigning an injury and then fell prey to a neighbor’s cat (which is what I think happened as its underside looked like it might have been in a cat’s mouth), or if something else occurred. In any event, it was such a sad discovery.

I buried the cuckoo while regretting how short its life was. I’m glad I don’t let my cats roam about anymore and I wish neighbors would also keep their felines inside, even though I know that birds might fall prey to a hawk or die because of a disease. But I wish I’d been able to help this beautiful young bird. My emotions tell me the cuckoos won’t return but my mind says they won’t avoid the yard because they lost an offspring. Time will tell.

 

 

 

Nesting perils – or not?

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5128© Maria de Bruyn resLast year, I had the good fortune to come upon a snag (a dead standing tree) near the shore of Jordan Lake in which brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were tending a nest. This year, thinking back to those delightful visits, I decided to go investigate the tree again. My first visit revealed no nuthatches in the vicinity, but a second visit a few days later on 15 March revealed they had a nest in the same place again. As these birds may keep mates for several years, I just assumed it was the same pair as in 2014, so it was like seeing old friends!

 

 

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A0438© Maria de Bruyn brown-headed nuthatch DK7A0467© Maria de Bruyn

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A9987©Maria de BruynOn 29 March, it looked like the birds were bringing food to the nest. One might also have had a piece of bark in its mouth; these nuthatches may use bark pieces as tools to help dig for insects. If the female had by chance laid her eggs around 15 March, the eggs would have just been hatching now. Usually, it then takes 18-19 days for the babies to fledge, so they could have been ready to fly around 15 April, but the egg-laying and hatching could have been earlier.

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On 4 April, the birds were still bringing food to the nest.

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A4943© Maria de Bruynbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A5264© Maria de Bruyn

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A4649© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5331© Maria de Bruyn resI was photographing the birds and wondering which one might be the male and which the female. Suddenly, I was surprised to see three birds, all about the same size.

Reading up on the species taught me that not only the mating pair but also other individuals, usually young males, help attend the nests. Scientists don’t yet know whether these helpers are older offspring, but it seems to me that it might be similar to the older son helpmates among the American crows.

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5353© Maria de Bruyn resbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A5351© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5366© Maria de Bruyn res brown-headed nuthatch DK7A5364© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A8333© Maria de BruynOn the other hand, perhaps the rather fuzzy bird was a baby, which lacks the white neck spot seen in the adults. The babies also tend to have more gray and less brown coloring than adults. On 12 April, I didn’t see any nuthatches, but on 27 April, I saw a bird peeping out of the nest, well past the fledging period I think.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, since 1966, the population of brown-headed nuthatches has declined by 45% because they are losing nesting habitats (dead and pine trees) to deforestation and urbanization. Apparently, they also lose nests to predation.

brown-headed nuthatch 2 DK7A5128© Maria de Bruynbrown-headed nuthatch DK7A9709© Maria de Bruyn res

brown-headed nuthatch DK7A9827© Maria de Bruyn resOn 9 May, when I returned to Jordan Lake to see if nuthatches were still around the nest, I found their home tree decapitated, precisely at the spot where the hole had been for their nest. I imagine that a raccoon might have gotten up there, although I suppose some other predator could have wreaked havoc as well. In any event, it means I won’t be able to count on visiting the nuthatches there next spring.

The mysteries of the third bird’s identity and what took down the nest will likely remain unknowns. But at least I have my photos of the lovely little birds’ last nest at that site!