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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

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
A slender bird with a long, distinctly patterned tail and white throat and breast. The back and head of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo are a plain grayish-brown. Consistent with its common name, the stout, somewhat curved bill is primarily yellow (the upper mandible is mostly black, with some yellow, while the lower mandible is yellow in its entirety). The boldly white and black patterned outer tail feathers, or rectrices, which from underneath give the appearance of 6 large white spots, can generally be observed during perching and in flight. The rufous primary feathers of this cuckoo are largely only visible in flight. The bird is generally 26 to 30 cm in length and weighs an average 55 to 65 grams (Hughes 1999). Females are slightly larger than males. The feet of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo are similar to that of the woodpeckers; they are zygodactylous; the two outer toes point backward while the two inner toes point forward (Hughes 1999).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Characteristics of the Black-billed Cuckoo (C. erythropthalmus), may cause some uncertainty in identification. In addition to a completely black bill, however, the Black-billed Cuckoo has a buffy throat, small distinct white tips on the rectrices (not large and obvious as on the Yellow-billed Cuckoo), little to no rufous on the wings, and a red orbital ring around the eyes. The juveniles are more easily confused (see Hughes 1999, for a comparative description of juvenile birds).

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range

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Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 40

(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)

Little to no information regarding Yellow-billed Cuckoo migratory patterns exists for Montana. Of the few records containing any details on the month of observation (many of them are historic records with limited detail) the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is known in Montana only in June and July (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). All of these observations indicate no behavioral evidence to suggest breeding. No systematic censuses have been performed and no other information is available on migration.

Throughout their range, preferred breeding habitat includes open woodland (especially where undergrowth is thick), parks, and deciduous riparian woodland. In the West, they nest in tall cottonwood and willow riparian woodlands. Nests are found in trees, shrubs or vines, an average of 1 to 3 meters above ground (Harrison 1979). Western subspecies require patches of at least 10 hectares (25 acres) of dense, riparian forest with a canopy cover of at least 50 percent in both the understory and overstory. Nests are typically found in mature willows (Biosystems Analysis, Inc. 1989). This bird is rarely found at higher elevations (Johnsgard 1986).

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 (common or occasional) 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 2012, 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 observation 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 listed as associated with 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 listed as 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.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific 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 assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    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.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • 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
No information is available specific to Montana, but in other parts of their range the main diet of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is caterpillars. Other insects, some fruits, and sometimes small lizards, frogs and bird eggs are also consumed (Terres 1980). Food is gleaned from branches or foliage, or the Yellow-billed Cuckoo sallies from a perch to catch prey on the wing (Ehrlich et al. 1992).

No ecological information for the species is known from Montana, but some information is available from studies completed in other parts of their range. Territory size averages 20 to 24 hectares (Riparian Habitat Joint Venture 2000).

Reproductive Characteristics
No records exist indicating direct evidence of breeding in Montana. Several observations, however, record behavior that indirectly suggests breeding (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Of the limited records (there are 18 records for the state), more than half of them are for observations of individuals showing no breeding behavior and are presumed to be transient (migratory) in nature (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Reproductive information from other locations within the species' range reveals breeding often coinciding with the appearance of massive numbers of cicadas, caterpillars, or other large insects (Ehrlich et al. 1992).

Their light blue, greenish-blue or pale green eggs are smooth, non-glossy, and elliptical to subelliptical in shape (30 by 23 mm) (Baicich and Harrison 2005). Clutch size is one to five (commonly two to three) and is largest when prey is abundant. A clutch size greater than six eggs is attributable to more than one female laying in the nest (Hughes 1999). Incubation lasts 9 to 11 days and is shared by male and female during the day; the male incubates at night (Hamilton and Hamilton 1965, Potter 1980, Potter 1981). Young are tended by both parents and can climb in branches at seven to nine days. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo sometimes lays eggs in the nests of Black-billed Cuckoos (C. erythropthalmus) or (rarely) other species (Ehrlich et al. 1992).

The western distinct population segment of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo was listed as Threatened west of the Continental Divide in Montana under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on November 3, 2014 (USFWS 2014). In the listing decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted the primary factors threatening the western distinct population segment as loss and degradation of habitat for the species from altered watercourse hydrology and natural stream processes, livestock overgrazing, encroachment from agriculture, and conversion of native habitat. No critical habitat or special rules were included in the listing decision (USFWS 2014).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.
    • Biosystems Analysis, Inc. 1989. Endangered species alert program manual: species accounts and procedures. Southern California Edison Environmental Affairs Division.
    • Erhlich, P.R., D.S. Doblin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in jeopardy: the imperiled and extinct birds of the United States and Canada, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
    • Hamilton, W. J. and M. E. Hamilton. 1965. Breeding characteristics of yellow-billed cuckoos in Arizona. Proceedings of California Academy of Sciences 32:405-432.
    • Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 279 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1986. Birds of the Rocky Mountains: with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder, CO.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Potter, E. 1980. Notes on nesting yellow-billed cuckoos. Journal of Field Ornithology 51:17-29.
    • Potter, E. F. 1981. Effects of cool weather on nesting behavior and development in the yellow-billed cuckoo. Chat 45:15-16.
    • Riparian Habitat Joint Venture. 2000. Version 1.0. The riparian bird conservation plan: a strategy for reversing the decline of riparian associated birds in California. California Partners in Flight.
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. October 3, 2014. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; determination of Threatened status for the Western Distinct Population Segment of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus); final rule. Federal Register. Vol. 66, No. 210, pp. 54808-54832.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1957. Checklist of North American Birds. 5th edition. Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press. 691 pp.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Bancroft, G. T., A. M. Strong, and M. Carrington. 1995. Deforestation and its effects on forest-nesting birds in the Florida Keys. Conservation Biology 9: 835-844.
    • Banks, R. C. 1988. Geographic variation in the yellow-billed cuckoo. Condor 90:473-477.
    • Benton, R.M. 1987. The Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. Utah Birds 3:7-11.
    • California Department of Fish and Game (CDF&G). 1990. 1989 annual report on the status of California's state listed threatened and endangered plants and animals. 188 pp.
    • Carter, M., G. Fenwick, C. Hunter, D. Pashley, D. Petit, J. Price, and J. Trapp. 1996. Watchlist 1996: For the future. Field Notes 50(3):238-240.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Cooper, J. G. 1869. Notes on the fauna of the Upper Missouri. American Naturalist 3:294-299.
    • Decalesta, D. S. 1994. Effect of white-tailed deer on songbirds within managed forests in Pennsylvania. Journal of Wildlife Manage. 58: 711-718.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Faanes, Craig A. 1982. Northern Great Plains Region. American Birds. 36(6): 991.
    • Faanes, Craig A. 1983. The Nesting Season: Northern Great Plains Region. American Birds. 37(6): 999-1001.
    • Hughes, J.M. 1999. Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus<\i>). Species Account Number 418. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Hunter, W.C., R.D. Ohmart, and B.W. Anderson. 1988. Use of exotic saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis) by birds in arid riparian systems. Condor 90:113-123.
    • 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.
    • Kepler, C. B., and A. K. Kepler. 1978. Status and nesting of the yellow-billed cuckoo in Puerto Rico. Auk 95:417-419.
    • Lack, D. 1976. Island biology illustrated by the land birds of Jamaica. Studies in Ecology, Vol. 3. Univ. California Press, Berkeley. 445 pp.
    • Laymon, S. A., and M. D. Halterman. 1987b. Can the western subspecies of Yellow-billed Cuckoo be saved from extinction? Western Birds 18:19-25.
    • 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 Online Database. 2001. Helena, Montana, USA. April-September 2003.
    • National Geographic Society (NGS). 1999. Field guide to the birds of North America. Third Edition. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
    • Preble, N.A. 1957. The nesting habits of the yellow-billed cuckoo. Amer. Mildl. Nat. 57:474-82.
    • Raffaele, H. A. 1983. A guide to the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Fondo Educativo Interamericano, San Juan, Puerto Rico. 255 pp.
    • Raffaele, H., J. Wiley, O. Garrido, A. Keith, and J. Raffaele. 1998. A guide to the birds of the West Indies. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 511 pp.
    • Sibley, C.G., and B. L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven. xxiv + 1111 pp.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • 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.
    • Stiles, F.G. and A.F. Skutch. 2003. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, Ithaca. 511 pp.
    • U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000. Notice of 90-day finding for a petition to list the Yellow-billed Cuckoo as Endangered and commencement of a status review. Federal Register 65(33): 8104-8107.
    • U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Re-opening of the Public Comment Period for Status Review of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo in the Western United States. Federal Register 66(6): 1633-1634.
    • 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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Yellow-billed Cuckoo — Coccyzus americanus.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from