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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide

Image of An adult black-billed cuckoo.Zoom+ An adult black-billed cuckoo. © Robert Lin

Black-billed cuckoo

Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Species Group: Bird

Conservation Status

State: Special Concern (Breeding)



A slender, long-tailed bird 11-12 inches in length. It has zygodactyl feet and a slender slightly curved bill. It has a brown back and a white breast. Both sexes look alike.

The black-billed cuckoo can be distinguished from the closely-related yellow-billed cuckoo by its black bill (as opposed to yellow), red eye ring (as opposed to yellow), and lack of rufous color on its wings or large white spots on the underside of the tail (both of which are present on the yellow-billed). Juvenile black-billed cuckoos have a buff-colored eye ring and the underside of their tail is lighter than in adults.

The song of the black-billed also differs from the yellow-billed and is a fast rhythmic cucucu, cucucu, cucucu…, whereas the yellow-billed is a rapid throaty ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka- ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp. This is a shy, elusive bird, which is more often heard than seen.

Image of Range of the black-billed cuckoo in New Jersey.Zoom+ Range of the black-billed cuckoo in New Jersey.


The breeding range of the black-billed cuckoo extends from southern Canada in the north to northern Alabama and Texas in the south, and extends from the eastern seaboard of the U.S. to the Rocky Mountains in the west. Their winter range includes the northern Andes Mountains in South America from Columbia in the north to Bolivia in the south. They can be observed as migrants within the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico.

Black-billed cuckoos prefer mature deciduous and mixed forests, riparian forests, and open woodlands with dense deciduous thickets. They may nest in groves of trees, forest edges, or moist thickets within a tree or shrub. During migration, they may be found in arid subtropical scrub to tropical evergreen forest.


Black-billed cuckoos feed primarily on small invertebrates such as beetles, katydids, or spiders, but especially caterpillars. They are a very beneficial species for forests due to their fondness for tent caterpillars and gypsy moth caterpillars. They may also feed on berries and occasionally prey on frogs or eggs of other birds.


The breeding season for black-billed cuckoos in New Jersey is from mid-May to mid-September. There is usually a single brood per breeding season.

The nest is usually constructed fairly low within a tree or shrub, often very near the ground. This species has been known to be a brood parasite; occasionally laying its eggs in the nests of yellow-billed cuckoos or other songbirds. The nest is a loosely-built cup consisting of twigs, grass, and plant stems and lined with dried leaves and dried grass.

Usually, 2 or 3 eggs are laid and incubation is by both parents. The young are tended to by both parents and are capable of flight at 21-24 days after hatching.


The black-billed cuckoo is listed in New Jersey as a Species of Special Concern (not yet endangered or threatened but possibly on its way) during its breeding season. Some recent survey data indicates a population decline within portions of their range. Due to their preference for mature woodlands and riparian habitats, they may be at risk due to habitat fragmentation and modification within their breeding range. The use of pesticides to control caterpillar outbreaks may also be having a negative impact on some cuckoo populations.

Text written by Michael J. Davenport in 2011.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
       Class: Aves
          Order: Culculiformes
             Family: Cuculidae
                Genus: Coccyzus
                   Species: C. erythropthalmus

Find Related Info: Special concern, Migratory songbirds

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