Riverdave's Journal
This essay is a merging of two different articles that appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 9/2/1996 and 7/1/2000

"Ah, there's a rain crow," said my father as we paddled along the Eno.  It was 1990, the first year of my public river program that has come to be known as Wafting the Eno. I was taking out as many mentors as possible to learn the ways of the river.

My father, a native of Florida, had never been to the Eno. But he did recognize the call of birds like the "rain crow" that are common to the wetlands of Florida where he had passed many hours outdoors as a fisherman.  I, too, had heard that call before but had not pinned down its identity.

All my father knew about the bird's behavior was that it often called just before a summer rainstorm. Later at home we found the name "rain crow" listed as a local appellation for what is generally known as the yellow-billed cuckoo.

While growing up in Durham, I had never heard anyone speak of cuckoos as being local. As insect eaters, they never made their appearance at our family bird feeder - the place that, as a child, offered me the closest view of the avian world. My only familiarity with a cuckoo was the little bird that popped out of a Swiss cuckoo clock. To now discover a cuckoo in the woods of my hometown of Durham was quite a revelation.  

Since then, I have learned that there are 140 species of cuckoos found all over the world inhabiting every continent except Antarctica.  Seventeen are found in the New World, more commonly in tropical climates. For most of us, the most familiar member of the cuckoo family is the roadrunner. Our yellow-billed cuckoo winters throughout much of western South America, then migrates north to the West Indies, Mexico, the United States and Canada to breed during the warm seasons.  

The black-billed cuckoo is another species of cuckoo that on rare occasions is spotted in our Piedmont region during the spring or fall seasons of migration. It does not breed in Durham County, but can be found in summer residence in the mountainous regions of North Carolina.

There seems to be a consensus of folk traditions from around the world that when the cuckoo makes its appearance, it is a heralding of new fate and may reflect a change in our home or family life. With such cross-cultural agreement about its meaning, the bird may well represent a strong archetypal energy in its relationship to humans.

Once something new is brought into my sphere of awareness, I often come to realize that it was there unnoticed all along. That day on the river with my father ushered in a special relationship with a new friend for me. I began to find the cuckoo everywhere. In fact, the yellow-billed cuckoo is just about as "Eno" as you can get. The reason that most of us are not familiar with it is because we are so visually oriented. But this skulking bird would much rather be heard than seen.

Preferring not to reveal itself visually to a passerby, this furtive example of river fauna rests on the branches of trees, watching and listening for its favorite diet of hairy caterpillars, an item often passed over by other birds. It is very aggressive with them, for as many as 325 caterpillars were once found in the belly of just one bird!  The cuckoo also dines on butterflies, cicadas, grasshoppers, dragonflies, crickets and an occasional frog. Just this spring a friend reported to me that he saw a cuckoo in our area with an Eastern fence lizard in its bill.

Without warning the cuckoo will burst forth with its "cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-koo-koo-koo," riveting the still, heavy air of a sultry summer day. This call is significantly different from the call of its European cousin, whose more melodic voice was invoked in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The Yellow-billed cuckoo's call may be confused locally with that of a flicker, and it will often add a slower and softer series of "cow, cow, cow'' syllables that may be mistaken for the cooing of the mourning dove.

It is also not uncommon to hear the yellow-billed cuckoo's elocution nocturnally. And while not calling exclusively before a rainstorm, in my experience, this does happen in such a large percentage of cases that the bird has rightfully earned the title of rain crow.  With the slow approach of the remnants of Tropical Storm Allison to our area this season, I heard the call of the cuckoo each of the four days before its arrival.

While leading a travel group on the Amazon River last year, I inquired of our local Peruvian guide concerning the bird. "Yes," he said, "We see that bird." But he was quite astonished to hear of its call. Since the yellow-billed cuckoo does not breed along the Amazon River, it is silent while sojourning there during our winter months. I thought to myself of the Amazon and the Eno, two great rivers providing vital habitat for the same animal.
But an infamous reputation casts a shadow over the cuckoo family of birds because of the behavior of some species of Old World cuckoos.  They are known as brood parasites. Instead of building their own nests, they maintain the habit of dropping their eggs in the nests of other birds of smaller size. 

When the cuckoo chick hatches, its overbearing energy eliminates the chances for the survival of the other chicks and the distressed but dedicated host parents exhaust themselves feeding and rearing the precocious cuckoo.

Fortunately, the American cuckoos have much better manners and come as standard, hard working birds. Courting may commence when a calling male mounts the female's shoulders and places food in her mouth. The pair will be monogamous, building their own nest consisting of a shallow bowl of sticks. 

Covered with a layer of dry leaves and catkins and rimmed with pine needles, the nest is placed four to 20 feet above the ground in low trees. Two to four greenish-blue eggs hatch 10 days later. Then, after 10 more days or even less, the young are fledged in what is one of the quickest developments of any species of birds. 

Another peculiar feature of this bird is that, unlike most birds with three toes on each foot facing forward and one toward the rear, the cuckoo possesses two forward-projecting toes and two facing backward.  Such an arrangement is known as zygodactyl and is found in parrots and woodpeckers as well. I have yet to reason why this is a useful adaptive arrangement for the cuckoo, but it may account for the bird's more slow and deliberate movement as it passes through the forest canopy.

What makes the yellow-billed cuckoo even more special to the Eno River is the fact that it migrates to our neck of the woods from its wintering grounds in the distant Amazon River Basin, arriving here around the beginning of May to breed.

This bird knows how to navigate tropical forests filled with jaguars, boa constrictors, monkeys and a whole host of other arboreal predators. With all those animals maneuvering about with stealth through the canopy, no wonder the cuckoo feels a need to travel to safer nesting grounds! It must be a heck of a lot easier to set up house on the Eno where, at worst, only pesky gray squirrels and marauding blue jays can interfere. But imagine how far the cuckoo must fly to get here.

So, be listening for this bird who sojourns with us in North Carolina from May through September. They will not be found in the downtown section of urban areas, but as one moves away from the town center to forests, fields and rivers, their distinctive calls will soon be heard. If you are a hiker or a paddler, the voice of the cuckoo is both common and unmistakable.

The cuckoo does not usually call in succession at the same perching. It takes practice to train one's eyes to spot its sulking, bent-over shape on a branch or to recognize the sudden swoop of this blue jay-size bird. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones to zoom in visually after the call, you will find a slim, medium-sized bird, plainly clad in shades of brown with cinnamon wing tips; white below and brandishing a prominently spotted tail on the underside. Noticing the yellow of the bill may require binoculars. There is little difference between male and female.

But convenient stagings for us are few. I'm accustomed to being charmed simply by hearing its recondite call that seems to beckon me at auspicious moments, reminding me of the infinite magic that nature holds for us all.

One such moment with a yellow-billed cuckoo came on the day of my marriage to my longtime wafting friend, Josie McNeil, in November 2000. We were on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas and were scheduled to walk out to the end of a 500-foot dock where we would exchange vows.

We were both dressed and ready for the ceremony when I heard a loud squawking coming from the rear of our cottage. I looked out the back door and saw a cat mauling a bird on the grass in a neighbor's yard. I raced out the back door, leaped over the fence in my wedding clothes into the neighbor's yard and chased the cat away.

Before me was a most desperate looking bird, feathers dislodged and covered with sand spurs. I gently reached down to pick it up and to my surprise, found myself holding a yellow-billed cuckoo for the first time in my life! I brought the trembling bird into the house, asking myself why this stressful event had to happen just moments before our wedding. 

Josie held the bird firmly in her hands while I began to pick off the deeply buried sand spurs under its wings. The bird writhed with the tug of each sand spur. I winced as well, as the pain from the bird's wing seemed to float up into my arm.

With the removal of the sand spurs came a huge quantity of down and feathers. The poor, half-naked bird stood before us in a small cardboard box. There were no puncture wounds from the cat's claws or even broken wings. But the bird was obviously traumatized and would not be able to fly anytime soon with its loss of feathers. 

So we hurried off to our wedding ceremony, wondering what this bizarre event might mean for all of us on such an auspicious day.  As I was unable to locate a wildlife rehabilitator on the island for help, our cuckoo died the following afternoon. We respectfully buried it in the sand under the shade of a mango tree. 

"I probably should have let the cat just finish it off," I mumbled to my new wife. But at least I had run to the rescue of a wild creature that I had come to revere as very special. That event became but another chapter in my collection of unusual encounters that I had experienced with this bird in the past dozen years.  And I have the uncanny feeling that the book isn't over - more tales of the cuckoo are yet to come. 

With the cuckoo as our Eno festival logo this year, it could turn out to be a year of special and portentous happenings along our river. Are significant changes in the air?  Are we ready for the call of the cuckoo and the archetypal energies it may bring our way?
Photo by Scott Elowitz: yellow-billed cuckoo