Black-billed Cuckoo

Distribution and Abundance

  • BBS Map
  • Breeding range across temperate North America: north-central and northeastern United States and south-central and southeastern Canada.
  • Historically, this species experienced a range expansion northward into northern New York following human occupation as conversion of primeval forest to agricultural land produced suitable edge habitat; fairly common summer resident by the 1900s (Eaton 1988). Similar northward expansion in Quebec, Ontario, and Maritime Provinces (Jauvin and Bombardier 1996). However, subsequent establishment of unsuitable coniferous habitat on land previously cleared for agriculture has had contrary effect in some regions (Erskine 1992).
  • Densities vary greatly from year to year when peak numbers are recruited to regions of insect outbreaks (Nolan and Thompson 1975, Jauvin and Bombardier 1996). Local estimates made over short period should be assessed with caution. Density frequently underestimated due to quiet demeanor and skulking behavior. 
  • Winters in South America - distribution poorly known.


  • Prefers groves of trees, forest edges, and thickets; frequently associated with water. 
  • In the Midwest, occurs most frequently in shrub uplands and wetlands (Eastman 1991); also parks, farm groves, and successional vegetation (Hemesath 1992). In Wisconsin, occurs in deciduous forest and shrubby wetlands (Robbins 1991). Of 679 observations in Wisconsin from 1995-2000, 35.6% were in upland shrub habitats (both pure hardwood and mixed hardwood-coniferous), 25% in upland hardwood forest, and 13.8% in lowland hardwood shrub (WSO 2002). In Michigan, of survey observations from 1983-1988, peak nesting habitats for this species were shrub uplands and wetlands (Eastman 1991). In northeastern Ohio, prefers aspen thickets near swamps (Peterjohn and Rice 1991). In Missouri, occurs most frequently in willows that border marshes and ponds (Robbins and Easterla 1992). In northern Great Plains, found in forest and open woodlands of all types, generally at low elevations (Dobkin 1994).
  • In eastern Canada and northeastern U.S., usually found in edges and clearings of young deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous woods; abandoned farmland with trembling aspen, poplar, and birch; brushy hillsides and pastures, roadsides, and fencerows; orchards and berry patches; hawthorn thickets; also in wet areas, often among willows near edges of bogs and marshes (Peck and James 1983, Pistorius 1985, Eaton 1988).
  • Nest site generally in groves of trees, forest edges, and thickets; sometimes associated with streams and marshes. Nest usually concealed by leaves and branches of nesting tree, thick bushes, or tangles of vines. In Michigan, nests found in clumps of beech saplings, eastern white pine, eastern hemlock, sugar maple and poplars (Spencer 1943). Willow thickets used in Wisconsin (Robbins 1991). Hawthorn thickets and American elm used in Indiana (Nolan 1963). In Ontario, 119 nests in deciduous saplings and trees including hawthorn, willow, and apple; 68 nests in coniferous trees, including pine; and 44 nests in shrubs and bushes (Peck and James 1983).
  • During migration through Florida, frequents wooded areas and dense thickets (Stevenson and Anderson 1994). In Texas, occurs in woodlands, particularly along streams and ponds, dense borders of meadows and margins of forests, also groves and thickets of coastal prairies. 
  • On wintering grounds in Venezuela, occurs in semiopen woodlands and scrub, humid forest, and second growth primarily in lowlands (Meyer de Schauensee and Phelps 1978). Occurs in arid tropical forest in west Peru and humid tropical forest in east Peru (Parker et al. 1982).


  • Diet primarily large insects, favoring caterpillars when available. Caterpillar hairs form furry mat in cuckoo's stomach; regurgitated in a pellet when mass obstructs digestion (Forbush and May 1939).
  • Skulky behavior when perched; seldom perches in the open. Slips quietly through thickets. Difficult to locate visually unless calling (Jauvin and Bombardier 1996).
  • Little information on territoriality or mating system. Probably territorial, as is Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Hughes 1999) and probably monogamous. Solitary during breeding season; observed alone or in pairs. 
  • Four observations of conflict between Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos feeding on caterpillars; Black-billed more aggressive (Bender 1961). However, Black-billed Cuckoos observed being chased by Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebird, and American Robin (Forbush 1907).
  • May associate with other species during migration (James and Neal 1986) or on wintering grounds (Munn 1985).

Parasitism and Predation

  • The Black-billed Cuckoo is an intraspecific brood parasite that occasionally lays eggs in other Black-billed Cuckoo nests. Parasitism recognized by unusually large clutches, eggs appearing after clutch is complete, and irregular laying intervals (Hughes 1997). An occasional interspecific brood parasite as well. Known to parasitize at least 11 other bird species; most frequent hosts are Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chipping Sparrow, American Robin, Gray Catbird and Wood Thrush. Other reported hosts include Eastern Wood-Pewee, Veery, Yellow Warbler (Roberts 1932), Cedar Waxwing, Northern Cardinal (Herrick 1910) and Yellow-breasted Chat (Thomas 1995).
  • Some evidence for egg mimicry; 75% of reported interspecific cases involve matching host eggs. In addition, most frequently used hosts lay blue-green eggs as does the Black-billed Cuckoo, suggesting that eggs are not laid in host nests randomly (Hughes 1997).
  • Rare host of Brown-headed Cowbird (Friedmann et al. 1977). One nest of 218 in Ontario contained cowbird egg (Peck and James 1983). More frequently, a host to Yellow-billed Cuckoo - two nests in Ontario survey (Peck and James 1983) and three of nine nests in Indiana parasitized by Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Nolan and Thompson 1975).
  • Adults occasionally predated by raptors (Storer 1966). Eggs and chicks taken by Common Grackle (Nolan and Thompson 1975); young probably also consumed by snakes and mammals (Nolan 1963). 

Conservation and Management

  • Likely susceptible to pesticide-residue accumulation due to reliance on noxious caterpillars. Large numbers may have been poisoned by eating caterpillars sprayed with arsenical pesticides in Nova Scotia orchards (Tufts 1986).
  • Frequently killed by flying into television towers, airport ceilometers and tall buildings during nocturnal migration (Howell et al. 1954, Crawford and Stevenson 1984, Kemper 1996).
  • May be susceptible to habitat fragmentation. In Saskatchewan, abundance correlated with grove size; not found in aspen groves smaller than 1.2 ha. In central New Jersey, observed only on forest plots from 7.5 to 24 ha in size; absent from plots less than 4 ha (Galli et al. 1976). In eastern South Dakota, presence correlated with fragment area and length; not found in fragments less than 4.5 km2 (Martin 1981).
  • Listed as High Priority concern on Audubon WatchLists for 16 states. WatchLists indicate declining local bird populations based on global abundance, breeding and winter distribution, threats on breeding and wintering grounds, importance of area under consideration to species, and population trend (Bonney et al. 1999).
  • BBS trend results from 1966-2000 (Sauer et al. 2001) in the Northern Spruce-Hardwoods region indicate the Black-billed Cuckoo population has decreased in this region  (-1.3, p=0.10 Trend Graph S28); this species may also be decreasing in the Great Lakes Transition region (-0.8, p=0.57 Trend Graph S20). Survey-wide (US and Canada), this species has shown a significant decrease (-1.9, p=0.00 Trend Graph SUR).

For more information about the conservation and management of the Black-billed Cuckoo, please see the Species Management Abstract, from the Conserve Online public library, maintained by The Nature Conservancy.

This species account is based on: Hughes, J.M. 2001. Black-billed Cuckoo. In The Birds of North America, No. 587 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, DC. 


  • Bender, R.O. 1961. Food competition among closely related sympatric species. Wilson Bull. 73:214.
  • Bonney, R., D.N. Pashley, R. Cooper, and L. Niles, eds. 1999. Strategies for bird conservation: the Partners in Flight Planning Process. Cornell Lab of Ornithol., Ithaca, NY.
  • Crawford, R.L. and H.M. Stevenson. 1984. Patterns of spring and fall migration in northwest Florida. J. Field. Ornithol. 55:196-203.
  • Dobkin, D.S. 1994. Conservation and management of Neotropical migrant landbirds of the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. Univ. of Idaho Press, Moscow.
  • Eastman, J. 1991. Black-billed Cuckoo. Pp. 232-233 in The atlas of breeding birds of Michigan (R. Brewer, G.A. McPeek, and R.J. Adams, Jr. eds.). Michigan State Univ. Press, East Lansing.
  • Eaton, S.W. 1988. Black-billed Cuckoo. Pp. 196-197 in The atlas of breeding birds in New York State (R.F. Andrle and J.R. Carroll, eds.). Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY.
  • Erskine, A.J. 1992. Atlas of breeding birds of the Maritime Provinces. Nimbus Publ. and Nova Scotia Mus., Halifax.
  • Forbush, E.H. 1907. Useful birds and their protection. Massachusetts State Board of Agric., Boston.
  • Forbush, E.H. and J.B. May. 1939. Natural history of the birds of eastern and central North America. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.
  • Friedmann, H., L.F. Kiff and S.I. Rothstein. 1977. A further contribution to knowledge of the host relations of the parasitic cowbirds. Smithson. Contr. Zool. 235, Washington, D.C.
  • Galli, A.E., C.F. Leck and R.T.T. Forman. 1976. Avian distribution patterns in forest islands of different sizes in central New Jersey. Auk 93:356-364.
  • Hemesath, L. 1992. Black-billed Cuckoo. Pp. 198-199 in Atlas of the breeding birds of Ontario (M.D. Cadman, P.F.J. Eagles, and F.M. Helleiner, eds.). Univ. of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
  • Herrick, F.H. 1910. Life and behavior of the cuckoo. J. Exp. Zool. 9:169-233.
  • Howell, J.C., A.R. Laskey, and J.T. Tanner. 1954. Bird mortality at airport ceilometers. Wilson Bull. 66:207-215.
  • Hughes, J.M. 1997. Taxonomic significance of host-egg mimicry by facultative brood parasites of the avian genus Cuculidae. Can. J. Zool. 75:1380-1386.
  • Hughes, J.M. 1999. Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In The birds of North America, no. 418 (A. Poole and F.Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
  • James, D.A. and J.C. Neal. 1986. Arkansas birds: their distribution and abundance. Univ. of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville.
  • Jauvin, D. and M. Bombardier. 1996. Black-billed Cuckoo. Pp. 578-581 in The breeding birds of Quebec: atlas of breeding birds of southern Quebec (J. Gauthier and Y. Aubry, eds.). Prov. of Quebec Soc. for the protection of birds, Can. Wildl. Serv., Environ. Canada, Montreal.
  • Kemper, C. 1996. A study of bird mortality at a west central Wisconsin TV tower from 1957-1995. Passenger Pigeon 58:219-235.
  • Martin, T.E. 1981. Limitation in small habitat islands: chance or competition? Auk 98:715-734.
  • Meyer de Schauensee, R. and W.H. Phelps, Jr. 1978. A guide to the birds of Venezuela. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Munn, C.A. 1985. Permanent canopy and understory flocks in Amazonia: species composition and population density. Pp. 683-712 in Neotropical ornithology (P.A. Buckley, M.S. Foster, E.S. Morton, R.S. Ridgely, and F.C. Buckley, eds.). Ornithol. Monogr. no. 36.
  • Nolan, V., Jr.1963. Reproductive success of birds in a deciduous scrub habitat. Ecology 44:305-313.
  • Nolan, V., Jr., and C.F. Thompson. 1975. The occurrence and significance of anomalous reproductive activities in two North American nonparasitic cuckoos. Ibis 117:496-503.
  • Parker, T.A., S.A. Parker, and M.A. Plenge. 1982. An annotated checklist of Peruvian birds. Buteo Books, Vermillion, SD.
  • Peck, G. and R. James. 1983. Breeding birds of Ontario: nidiology and distribution. Vol. 2-Passerines. Misc. Publ. Roy. Ont. Mus., Toronto.
  • Peterjohn, B.G. and D.L. Rice. 1991. The Ohio breeding bird atlas. Ohio Dep. Nat. Resour., Columbus.
  • Pistorius, A. 1985. Black-billed Cuckoo. Pp. 126-127 in The atlas of breeding birds of Vermont (S.B. Laughlin and D.P. Kibbe, eds.). Univ. Press of New England, Hanover, NH.
  • Robbins, M.B. and D.A. Easterla. 1992. Birds of Missouri: their distribution and abundance. Univ. of Missouri Press, Columbia.
  • Robbins, S.D. 1991. Wisconsin birdlife. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  • Roberts, T.S. 1932. The birds of Minnesota. Univ. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines and J. Fallon. 2001. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966-2000. Version 2001.2, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
  • Spencer, O.R. 1943. Nesting habits of the Black-billed Cuckoo. Wilson Bull. 55:11-22.
  • Stevenson, H.M. and B.H. Anderson. 1994. The birdlife of Florida. Univ. of Florida Press, Gainsville.
  • Storer, R.W. 1966. Sexual dimorphism and food habits in three North American accipiters. Auk 83:223-236.
  • Thomas, B.T. 1995. Black-billed Cuckoo parasitizes the nest of a Yellow-breasted Chat. Raven 66:3-5.
  • Tufts, R.W. 1986. Birds of Nova Scotia. Nimbus Publ. and Nova Scotia Mus., Halifax.
  • Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. 2002. Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.
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Last Edit Date: September 26, 2006
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