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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Black-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status
PIF: 2


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Black-billed Cuckoo is a 31 centimeter-long bird with a stout slightly decurved bill, zygodactyl feet, grayish-brown dorsum, white venter (except tail), and a long tail that is patterned on the underside in gray with white feather tips. The bill is usually all dark, and may show yellow at the base of the lower mandible. There is a reddish eye ring. In juveniles, the undertail is whiter, the eye ring is buffy, the pale underparts may have a buffy tinge, and there may be some rusty-brown color on the outer wing.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The Black-billed Cuckoo differs from the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) by lacking rufous primaries and the absence of an extensively yellow lower mandible.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
Black-billed Cuckoos breed east of the Rocky Mountains from central Alberta to Nova Scotia in the north and from Oklahoma and northern Texas to northern South Carolina in the south. Their distribution south of the breeding grounds is poorly known, but they are thought to winter from Colombia and Venezuela to Bolivia (Hughes 2001).

Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 144

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Summer resident and a nocturnal migrant. Black-billed Cuckoos typically arrive in Montana from early to mid-Jun and depart before October; the earliest sighting was near Alzada on 29 May 1980 and the latest was at the Helena Valley Regulating Reservoir on 27 Sep 1998.

Black-billed Cuckoos are birds of wooded draws, forest edges, thickets, and shelterbelts. In Montana they are found most often in riparian cottonwoods, green ashes, and American elms with a shrubby understory of willows, box elders, and alders; they also occur in foothill deciduous woodlands (Skaar 1969; Walcheck 1969, 1970; Kroodsma 1973; Jones and Hansen 2009).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Diet consists of insects such as caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, and butterflies. Also included are mollusks, fish, small vertebrates, fruits and berries.

Raptors the primary predators of adults. In many parts of their range, population fluctuations of Black-billed Cuckoos are related to outbreaks of tent caterpillars and cicadas. BBS data indicate a decline of 15.9% per year in Montana from 1980-2007, but the trend is based on few encounters and is not significant; a significant decline of 3.1% per year occurred survey-wide during the same time period.

Reproductive Characteristics
Black-billed Cuckoos typically arrive in Montana from early to mid-Jun and probably begin nesting soon thereafter. Few nests have been followed in the state, none in recent years. Typically single-brooded but a second brood may be attempted in the southern breeding range; usually 2-3 eggs laid per clutch. Sometimes a brood parasite; known to parasitize nests of at least 11 species. Incubation period is 10-11 days. Chicks leave nest at 6-7 days after hatching but remain unable to fly for about two more weeks (Hughes 2001). The nest is a well-concealed shallow platform of twigs built in a tree or shrub, often close to the ground. The few nests found in Montana were less than 2 m above ground in buffaloberry, rose, and chokecherry (Bendire 1895, Cameron 1907).

No management activities specific to Black-billed Cuckoo are currently occuring in Montana. In many parts of their range, population fluctuations of Black-billed Cuckoos are related to outbreaks of tent caterpillars and cicadas, which are favored foods. Cuckoos are probably vulnerable to pesticides used to control insect infestations and to the negative effects of overgrazing and fragmentation of riparian habitats (Hughes 2001).

Threats or Limiting Factors
No information for Montana. Frequently killed during migration by flying into television towers, airport ceilometers and tall buildings. Sensitive to forest fragmentation and habitat modification, such as forest understory removal (Hughes 2001).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Bendire, C. 1895. Life history of North American birds. U.S. National Museum Special Bulletin.
    • Cameron, E. S. 1907. The birds of Custer and Dawson Counties, Montana. Auk 24(3):241-271.
    • Hughes, J.M. 2001. Black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus). Species Account Number 587. In: A. Poole, ed. The Birds of North America. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY.
    • Jones, D. and A. Hansen. 2009. Factors influencing riparian breeding bird communities along the middle and lower Yellowstone River. Montana State University/US Army Corps of Engineers. Bozeman, MT. 65pp + appendices.
    • Kroodsma R.L. 1973. Breeding bird populations of riverine forests in eastern Montana. Prairie Naturalist 5(3): 40-48.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Walcheck, K. C. 1969. Avian populations of four plant communities in the Bearpaw Mountains, Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 29:73-83.
    • Walcheck, K.C. 1970. Nesting bird ecology of four plant communities in the Missouri River Breaks, Montana. Wilson Bulletin 82:370-382.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 829 pp.
    • Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc., Wheat Ridge, CO., 1981, Anaconda Stillwater Project 6-month environmental baseline report. CDM Project No. 3139. Vol. I Appendix. Jan. 15, 1981.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont.
    • ECON, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1979, Annual wildllife report of the Colstrip Area for 1978. Proj. 195-85-A. April 6, 1979.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 279 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 539 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lenard, S.J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution, 6th Edition. Montana Audubon: Helena, MT, 144 pp.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Spencer, O.R. 1943. Nesting habits of the black-billed cuckoo. Wilson Bull. 55:11-22.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
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Citation for data on this website:
Black-billed Cuckoo — Coccyzus erythropthalmus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on May 31, 2016, from