Two Costa Rican Cuckoos
Throughout the Old World and the Americas there are 127 species of cuckoos inhabiting both temperate and tropical regions. One can see twelve species (including three Ani) of these slender long-tailed birds of the Cuculidae family in tiny Costa Rica–nine residents and three migrant species. They frequent habitat from sea level, including the endemic Cocos Cuckoo on Cocos Island, 342 mi (550 k) from Costa Rica’s Pacific shore, and then up to 7,500 ft (2,300 m) elevation. At least two of the higher elevation species may be seen in our county of Coto Brus, and one quite regularly—the Squirrel Cuckoo–in my own backyard.
Why do I like the word “cuckoo”? Does it remind me of the slang word for “crazy” that I applied to my brother and sister when we were children, usually accompanied by a twirling finger pointed at the side of my head? (Do kids still do that?) Or does it remind me of the charming German clocks of yesteryear, whose fame depended upon a carved wooden bird emerging on the hour from behind closed doors to sing “coo coo”? And why was the Common Cuckoo of Europe selected to represent time marching forward? Why not the rooster?
It seems the Common Cuckoo’s song was traditionally viewed throughout the continent as the first joyful sign of spring, of rebirth, of nature primed for mating. Recognizing the power of this popular, hopeful symbol of the end of winter, 17th century clockmakers in the Black Forest village of Schönwald invented the Cuckoo Clock and crafted new iterations over centuries. For those with a bent for this sort of thing, there are some very cool contemporary Cuckoo Clocks.
Returning to my property in Costa Rica, the Squirrel Cuckoo usually announces it’s in the vicinity with a startling, loud whistle (KIP-weyeeeeeu) reminiscent of a construction worker’s response to an attractive lady passing by. In breeding season, the Squirrel Cuckoo is quite apt to produce a long series of whip or pwit sounds, with a prolonged churrrr when the object of attraction draws near.
Though not as multicolored as some other tropical birds, the Squirrel Cuckoo’s upper plumage epitomizes the bright color “rufous”. A rather large bird with distinctive habits, it is relatively common and hard to miss or misidentify. Once spotted at close range, the Squirrel Cuckoo doesn’t immediately fly away, but tries to hide behind arboreal vegetation, continuing to hunt in a squirrel-like manner, hopping from limb to limb in search of insects, especially its favorite food, caterpillars. Often described in bird guides as “furtive” or “skulking”, the Squirrel Cuckoo has an unnerving way of peering through leaves and turning its head sideways to look down, its red iris beading in on the intruder.
On a recent San Vito Bird Club trip to Cuenca de Oro, a property a few hundred feet below our elevation at Finca Cantaros, our president, Alison Olivieri sudden stopped short and looking up through her binoculars said, “Look where I’m looking—right overhead—I don’t want to take my eyes off this bird—the Black-billed Cuckoo!”
She was very excited, a common feeling among birders when something rare comes along. Fall passage migrants of the Black-billed Cuckoo are called “very rare at best” on the Pacific slope. Because these migrants are silent as they pass through Costa Rica on their way to wintering grounds in South America, it was all the more remarkable that Alison spotted it. And the rest of us soon shared the excitement, as we enjoyed watching the Black-billed Cuckoo scanning the surrounding branches and bushes for caterpillars or katydids, until it finally gave up and flew away.
May we remember again the Common Cuckoo of Europe, who inspired even Shakespeare: here are his lines in recognition of this fertility symbol in Love’s Labor’s Lost (V, ii, 902)
When daisies pied and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for this sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.
Smithsonian.com The Past, Present and Future of the Cuckoo Clock, by Jimmy Stamp, May 17, 2013.
The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, copyright 2014, published by Cornell University Press, pp. 174-176, and p. 370.
A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, copyright 1989 by Cornell University, Cornell University Press, pp. 183-188.