Black-billed Cuckoo (Coxxyzus erythropthalmus)

Black-billed Cuckoo by Jack BartholmaiBlack-billed Cuckoo distribution map


Population Information

Federal BBS information can be obtained at by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for 1966-2005.

Life History

Habitat Selection

The Black-billed Cuckoo occurs in woodlands, forest edges, and thickets. In the Midwest, it frequents upland and lowland shrub-carr, especially hawthorn and willow thickets (Robbins 1991). It nests in deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands near lakes or streams and less often in coniferous forests. Occasionally, Black-billed Cuckoos nest in urban parks or gardens (Peck and James 1983).

Gale et al. (1999) found that both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos appeared on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes (where they had not been previously detected) two years prior to an outbreak of gypsy moth, and then disappeared immediately after the outbreak.  Although the sample size of this study was small, it does suggest that food resources affect Black-billed Cuckoo habitat selection. 

Habitat Availability

Much suitable habitat remains in the state for Black-billed Cuckoo. Alder thicket is common and widespread in northern and central Wisconsin, but also occurs at isolated locales in the southern part of the state. Shrub-carr remains common and widespread in southern Wisconsin, but also occurs in the north (WDNR 2005). Abundant deciduous and mixed forest habitats exist statewide; however, forest fragmentation in both northern and southern Wisconsin, as well as on the wintering grounds, may make habitat unsuitable in some areas.

Population Concerns

Although abundant suitable habitat exists in Wisconsin, BBS data suggest significant declines within the state and range-wide (Sauer et al. 2005). Black-billed Cuckoo densities fluctuate annually in response to insect outbreaks, especially those of tent caterpillars or cicadas (Hughes 2001). BBS data reflect this phenomenon in Wisconsin, with number of individuals per BBS route varying from 0.7 to 3.0, and exhibiting an 8 to 9 year cycle. Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas data showed Black-billed Cuckoos to be widely distributed throughout Wisconsin. During the six-year census period (1995-2000), observers recorded evidence of breeding in 56% of the surveyed quads. (Anderson 2006).

Factors causing the population declines of this species are not well understood. Indiscriminate spraying to combat gypsy moth larva could adversely affect other caterpillar concentrations, thus reducing available prey (Anderson 2006). Black-billed Cuckoos also may suffer from pesticide poisoning by ingesting caterpillars from treated areas (Hughes 2001).

Recommended Management

Management efforts for this species should focus on creating and maintaining upland and lowland shrub communities. Conserve large blocks of forest that are subject to natural processes and various levels of disturbance. Spraying programs intended for tent caterpillars should be curtailed or reduced in Black-billed Cuckoo habitat (Hughes 1999).

Conservation and management strategies for this species should be focused in the following Wisconsin ecological landscapes: Central Lake Michigan Coastal, Central Sand Hills, Central Sand Plains, Forest Transition, North Central Forest, Northeast Sands, Northern Lake Michigan Coastal, Northwest Sands, Southeast Glacial Plains, Superior Coastal Plain, and Western Coulee and Ridges (WDNR 2005).  

Research Needs

Research is needed to determine the factors of long-term population decline of this species.  Among those of greatest concern are the effects of pesticide use on foraging cuckoos and habitat fragmentation or modification (Hughes 2001). Since 70% of Wisconsin forests are privately owned, research is needed to study whether smaller private holdings can provide habitat if managed as early seral deciduous types (WDNR 2005).

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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