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Yellow-billed cuckoos, commonly called rain crows, have a unique sound

With all the humidity and rainy weather lately, I have been hearing a lot of rain crows calling. The term “rain crow” is sort of a misnomer, though. They are not crows at all; they are yellow-billed cuckoos. I hear them most often after a brief shower when the hot sun comes back out and steams things up. That really gets them going.

You might have heard them, too. A slow, measured “kowp, kowp, kowp, kowp” that may or may not get faster and faster as it progresses. But either way, it is a unique sound. Yellow-billed cuckoos seem to me to be one of the few local species that gets more vocal as the summer wears on. I guess the combination of heat, humidity and pop-up short showers makes them that way.

Yellow-billed cuckoos are fairly common in our area but are often overlooked. They are quite large, larger than a blue jay and even some sharp-shinned hawks. But they are sluggish and are prone to sitting still in the leafy canopy for long periods of time. They are long and slender birds, brown on the upper side and white below. The tail is very long and thin, too; with large conspicuous white spots on the underside, easily seen in the photo with today’s column. They are well named; the bill is yellow and easy to see with a good look. Birders often go to the bill with binoculars first to make sure it is not the rarer black-billed cuckoo.

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Taylor Piephoff DON WILLIAMSON Staff Photographer

Cuckoos are large enough to take small snakes and lizards as food. They don’t have talons, so they just grab them with their sturdy, slightly down-curved bills. I’ve watched yellow-billed cuckoos grab anoles and beat them against tree limbs to subdue them, kingfisher style. What yellow-billed cuckoos are really known for is their fondness for hairy caterpillars, however. They do seem to occur in larger numbers when there is a local outbreak of hairy caterpillars. Other birds shun those caterpillars, but cuckoos love them. Eliminates competition. Give a listen when you are outdoors during this wet spell. It’s very possible you can hear one calling, even in your backyard.

News flash: The ruby-throated hummingbirds are back at the feeders in numbers. If you got frustrated a few months ago and put the feeders away, break them back out for another try. I put a new feeder up this week and had two birds within 45 minutes.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.