Re: Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Scissors Crossing, 26 June

Gjon Hazard

And now, I s’pose, the obligatory reminder about call playback... because it is oh-so-tempting with Yellow-billed Cuckoos.

You may have read Sibley's discussions on the subject, or the article in The Spruce, and convinced yourself that it'll be OK, 'just this once' -- but it would not be appropriate for this species, especially at this location.  

The western population of Yellow-billed Cuckoo is federally listed as an endangered species, and the species is also State listed as an endangered species in California. Both USFWS and CDFW require permits for audio elicitation (call playback, playing tapes, etc.).

Presence has been determined at San Felipe Creek. The survey protocol says, "Playback calls should not be used during follow up visits, and great care must be taken in order to avoid disturbing nesting birds." This is because people who research Yellow-billed Cuckoos believe, for this species in particular, that call playback can be harmful. 

The protocol goes on to say:

"Nesting cuckoos can be very sensitive to disturbance, especially during the pair formation and nest building stage. Nests located prior to the first egg are particularly susceptible to abandonment. At least five nests were abandoned during seven years of study on the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, possibly due, at least in part, to human disturbance (Halterman 2001, Halterman et al. 2009). Surveyors must be alert to cuckoos’ behavioral signs of disturbance near a nest, which include alarm calls given repeatedly while watching the intruder, broken wing displays, or flying in with prey, then eating it instead of going to the nest. If these occur, the observer has been detected, the cuckoo is distressed, and the observer should move back. Recorded calls should not be used to elicit a response during nest searching and monitoring activities, as cuckoos have been observed leaving the nest in response to a recorded call."

Stated another way, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (loosely speaking) applies to this species in breeding areas: If you're getting good views of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the bird is probably being disturbed by your presence. 

I am not aware of any recent confirmed cuckoo nestings anywhere in Southern California away from the Colorado River. Breeding may have occurred along the Mojave River in 2017. But that's it, once (probably), at one location, 4 years ago -- and nowhere else for quite a few years. 

The pattern of cuckoo occurrence at San Felipe Creek suggests that this is one of only a few places in the region where nesting may occur. 

Careful, considerate, ethical observation of Yellow-billed Cuckoos by birders could possibly help document nesting. More realistically, good birding behavior would probably mean being satisfied with hearing it (unsolicited) from a distance. Inappropriate birding behavior, on the other hand, could truly be detrimental.


From: <> on behalf of Barbara via <barbarac2003@...>
Sent: Saturday, June 26, 2021 3:09 PM
To: SanDiegoRegionBirding <>; Birding San Diego <>
Subject: [SanDiegoRegionBirding] Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Scissors Crossing, 26 June
This morning a group of us found, photographed, and recorded a Yellow-billed Cuckoo at the crossing. List on eBird is here:

More photos and recording (if loud enough) will be added shortly.

Before going, Trent Stanley did some research and found that a CDFW Lands Pass (1-Day) is needed to enter the San Felipe Valley Wildlife AreaIt's only $4.89, which might be worthwhile to avoid any fines in case you run into a CDFW officer. People with a CDFW trapping license or hunting and fishing licenses are exempt.

Temperatures are rising, with Wednesday and Thursday being the coolest days next week.


Barbara Carlson
San Diego

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Gjon Hazard 

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