Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cuckoo to the Rescue

Have you heard the cuckoo?  Every year about this time (late for nesters, to be sure!) the cuckoo starts talking.  It's a croaky kind of sound eminating from the verrrry tippy tops of walnuts, locusts, and sometimes the ash.  Mostly it chooses a habitat where it has access to tent caterpillars. 

Here's a picture of this wonderful bird:(not my photo. It's from off Google images--thank you, Peter!

They are a handsome, medium-sized bird with a very long tail.  They are not to be confused with the European cuckoo which has traits similar to the cowbird, laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and not raising their young.

Our American Black-Billed Cuckoo feeds its young on tent caterpillars--those ugly masses of web and crawling worms that colonize a branch or two or three on favored trees.  Cuckoos love tent caterpillars.  Out here JOTOLR, we try to push a stick into the tent, itself, and tear it apart.  That way the cuckoos can get at the worms more easily.  But it is the ONLY predator of these pests.  I'm not exactly sure why, but this bird manages to peck its way into the tent and, of course, finds a feast once it gets past the gauze.

So, if you hear a funny kind of croaky sound, coming from the top of a nearby tree, it's probably going to be a Black-Billed Cuckoo.  Take a stick and poke those tents, and celebrate the arrival of the Black-Billed Cuckoo.  BTW, it is on the "Threatened" list.


Vicki Lane over at Vicki Lane Mysteries is having a drawing for a cookbook, the recipes for which have all been contributed by Mystery Writers (Vicki, of course, is included).  The book is called Killer Recipes, and if you sign up, you might win yourself a cookbook FILLED with recipes to die for!  It's all for a good cause, too:  The American Cancer Society will received all proceeds.  Have a look and let me know what you think.  Vicki promises to send the winner the book, wherever they are!  So our faraway friends are welcome to enter! 


  1. That cloudscape is spectacular! And I'll be listening and watching for cuckoos ... we have one big tangle of tent worms in the white birch beside the garage.

  2. Elora -- I too had a recent outbreak of tent caterpillars in my woods this summer. I did a little research on natural controls and found the following that I would like to share with you. It comes from Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services.-- their words are as follows:

    A wide variety of factors have been implicated in causing population declines, including several adverse environmental conditions. High levels of larval mortality have been associated with relatively low temperatures in the winter and spring (such as a late or hard freeze following larval emergence) and harsh weather when early instars are abundant. Harsh weather and extremely high temperatures may kill numerous adults later in the spring, and also reduce mating success and viability of offspring amongst survivors. Outbreak populations may also decline or collapse as a result of starvation, when larvae exhaust food supplies (i.e., host foliage) before completing development (Drooz 1985).

    Natural enemies such as parasites, predators, and diseases may also exert important regulatory effects on Forest tent caterpillar populations. Some natural enemies are often extremely abundant during the later stages of outbreaks (Drooz 1985). The documented natural enemies of tent caterpillars are numerous, including 14 species of Hymenoptera egg parasites, 52 Diptera and 61 Hymenoptera species parasitic of larval and pupal stages, and 18 Hemiptera, nine Coleoptera and one Dermaptera that are predators of various life stages (Witter and Kuhlman 1972). At least 18 species of the parasitic insects have been recorded in Florida (Frank and Foltz 1997), as well as a parasitic nematode in the family Mermethidae.

    Other known predators include frogs, mice, skunks and over 60 species of birds (Witter and Kuhlman 1972). Bird predation of late-instar and pupal stage forest tent caterpillars has recently been demonstrated to cause overwhelming mortality of populations at all densities in an artificial setting, and is hypothesized as the principle regulator of low density populations between outbreaks (Parry et al. 1997).


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  4. Barbara, that is so interesting! Your research mentioned 14 species of birds that "uses" the tent caterpillar as a source of Florida. Certainly, nesting for birds could occur there much later than here. The cuckoo--as far as I know--is the last migrant to arrive and the last to nest, taking full advantage (here) of one of the major pests, to feed its young. And, interestingly enough, we seem to have a steady supply -- no shortfalls--of tent caterpillars every year. Without fail. Ugly as they are, though, it's good to know that they serve such a useful purpose in the life cycle of the Cuckoo!

    Thanks so much for your comment(s)...I am catching up with your (several) delightful posts...wanted to spend a little more time with the Mourning Quilt before commenting and I so appreciate your artistry! Hope you are enjoying your family members' stay!