Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 25: Rain Crow

I chose not to bring my iPod and earphones on my run this morning along the river so that I wouldn't miss any new birds singing. This time of year it seems like I hear something different on each run. Sure enough, amid the usual suspects--house finch, goldfinches, titmouse, cardinal--I heard the dry trill of several chipping sparrows. They like to hang out near my office, so I imagine I'll be hearing more from them. Upriver along Route 105 I was delighted to hear a red-bellied woodpecker in someone's yard. Haven't heard one of those in a while. But best yet was hearing a bird calling "cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu" in a wooded stretch along Molyneaux Road as I headed downhill toward the old fish hatchery. I stopped in my tracks and fruitlessly peered into the trees. I knew that sound: black-billed cuckoo. Along with its cousin the yellow-billed cuckoo, it's known as the rain crow.

The black-billed cuckoo is a fairly common bird around here, but very shy and so seldom seen. I've followed its distinctive call--a sort of breathy, bell-like, monotonous intonation--through the woods for a long time and never seen the bird. Other times, one will appear right in front of me for a minute or two but never make a sound. They come and go with silent magic. The bird I heard this morning is a remarkably early arrival to the area, but this spring everything has been early. Yesterday at the Arboretum I saw a caterpillar tent already crawling with tiny caterpillars. Caterpillars, especially tent caterpillars, creep me out. The fact that they come from something that looks like it was made by a spider doesn't help. So I particularly enjoy seeing (or even just hearing) a cuckoo, because cuckoos love to eat caterpillars. They can chow down a tent full in one sitting. My husband and I have stood ten feet away from a cuckoo while it was engrossed in eating its way through a bunch of caterpillars on an apple tree. Good bird.

The cuckoo of cuckoo clock fame is the European common cuckoo. I distinctly remember hearing one sing in Scotland when I was a child on a visit there with my grandparents. While the bird itself was rather plain, I was excited to have found it, because it sounded just like the clock in my grandmother's kitchen: "cu-coo, cu-coo." Our cuckoos are supposed to warn of imminent rain, hence the nickname. Thankfully, the bird's prediction didn't seem to apply to today, which remained gloriously sunny till late afternoon. The week ahead is supposed to be a wet one, though. Apparently when cuckoos get wet they sometimes have to air out their soft feathers by spreading out their wings in the sun like a cormorant. So it's not that the rain crow likes rain--he's just understandably sensitive to it.

Invisible bird
intones his warning of rain,
stops me in my tracks.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo photographed by me on Cape Cod in 2003.

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