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Europen Cuckoo

Europe comes to Rhode Island:

There’s a long list of excellent reasons to drive an electric car, but there is one major drawback, at least there is for me. I have to go to Warwick, RI to get my particular car serviced. Ouch! I had made my first ever service appointment and was dreading the long drive, when I received a hot birding tip from an up-and-coming young birder, David Clapp. David told me about a rare sighting in Johnston, RI. The rare bird, a Common (European) Cuckoo, had previously only been seen in the lower forty-eight two other times before. This made it a bird I should definitely try to find, since I don’t think I’ll be going to Europe anytime soon. There were just two problems. The bird is hanging around at a place called “Snake Den Farm.” (Why does it have to be snakes?) The other problem: my car appointment was at 8:30 in the morning. In order to drive to Johnston, look for the bird and still make it to Warwick by 8:30 meant I had to get up at 4:00AM. It also meant I’d be going alone. There is no way my wife would ever get up that early to look for a bird, especially one at Snake Den Farm.

Apart from perhaps a duck’s quack and an owl’s hoot, I can’t think of another bird sound more recognizable than that of a Common Cuckoo. It’s featured in movies, TV shows and a long list of Saturday morning cartoons. Anytime a goofy character bumps its head, the first sound you hear is “coo-coo, coo-coo.” In addition to cartoon voice-overs, this bird is solely responsible for a multi-million dollar industry. Visit any gift shop in Germany, Switzerland or Austria and you’ll find walls filled with cuckoo clocks. I’d bet most of us have at least one older relative with such a clock. My great-aunt had one and it kept me busy for hours…and from bothering her.

While Europeans have a fondness for the cuckoo’s song, many actually don’t care for the bird itself. The Common Cuckoo is a brood parasite, which sounds bad and it kind of is. Like our Brown-headed Cowbirds, cuckoos don’t build their own nests or raise their own young. Instead, they surreptitiously drop their eggs into the nests of other species and let them incubate, hatch and raise their kids. But unlike baby cowbirds, which have no animosity towards their step-nest-mates, except to eat more than their fair share, little cuckoos are diabolical. Even though they are born totally blind and naked, they will instinctively push out any other eggs or baby birds in the nest. There are several videos online showing this event in action. The clips are interesting to watch and at the same time, kind of disturbing.

Most birds victimized by cuckoos are small songbirds, even though the cuckoos themselves are quite large, about the size of a kestrel. Watching a small adult bird feeding a “baby” eight times its size is impressive to see, but not as impressive as what happens next. Eventually, the smaller birds will become tired of feeding this growing giant and the cuckoo will need to find its own food, which are often hairy caterpillars. After a few weeks of independent living, the young cuckoos, without assistance from either siblings or parents, will leave Europe (or Asia) and make a long migration to Southern Africa, crossing both the Mediterranean and the Sahara, guided solely by their innate instincts. Occasionally, however, those instincts become messed up and instead of flying to, say, Namibia or Botswana, the bird will end up in a slightly different location, like Johnston, RI.

I arrived at Snake Den Farm at sunrise and after scanning the area for snakes, I stepped out of my car. Finding a single bird somewhere on a 150-acre farm ordinarily would be a challenge, but not when the bird is this rare. I only had to find other birders, and it didn’t take long. A short distance down a dirt road, staring across an empty field and armed with binoculars, scopes and giant cameras, was Rhode Island’s finest bird paparazzi. And it was lucky for me they were there since I had trouble locating the bird. Even with everyone staring at the same tree, I couldn’t find it, no matter how hard I tried. Maybe it was because I was still half asleep or constantly on the lookout for snakes, but I just couldn’t find it. Being too proud to ask for help, I simply stood there and pretended I could see it, until I finally was able to track it down. Seeing a life bird is usually a cause for celebration, but things were pretty subdued on this day. Birders aren’t normally a chatty bunch anyhow, but in these days of social distancing, everyone stood apart, alone and silent. It was like birding in a library, only quieter.

I watched the bird for about an hour, while also watching the clock. (I still had to be in Warwick by 8:30.) The biggest highlight was when the cuckoo flew down and grabbed the larva of an isabella tiger moth. Wanna guess what the larva of an isabella tiger moth looks like? I’ll bet you already know. It’s everybody’s favorite fall caterpillar, the wooly bear. Wooly bears are widely known for their ability to predict the severity of the coming winter, but we’ll never know this particular wooly bear’s prediction. It was quickly swallowed by the very hungry cuckoo…weather info and all.

As of this writing, the cuckoo is still being seen at Snake Den Farm. Whatever eventually happens to it is anyone’s guess. The birders will want it to hang around for a while longer, but the wooly bears will be happy to see it go. It would be a nightmare for them if those caterpillar-eating cuckoos started breeding around here. It would be a problem for me as well. Without help from the wooly bears, I won’t know how to dress for the coming winter.