Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

August 8, 1921. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 56(45): 15-N.

Forest, Field & Stream

Summer's Mystic Visitor.

Sandy Griswold.

The early start the spring made this year, as we all know, was a false one. After a few brief days of delightfully deceptive weather, along in the fore part of April, which led us all to believe that we were going to have one of those delicious, old-fashioned vernal seasons again, but we were disappointed. Becoming disgruntled, for some reason or other, Old Boreas quickly reasserted himself, and came blowing and puffing his chilly breath down from the north right in our faces again, and premature as everything was, birds, flowers and vegetation of all sorts, all were set back a good deal farther than the premature advance even the boldest of them had made. It was not until well along in June that our woods began to recover and restart the work of enfoliation, and many of our birds were fully a month or more dilatory putting in appearance.

The most backward of these was the mystic cuckoo, and it has only been of late that the yellowbill's guttural call - for rain, as we used to believe - his "kuk-kuk=kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk! Kow-kow-kow-kow!" has been heard floating from out the involucre of maple, catalpa or apple tree.

This not unmelodious concatenation of tree-frog-like notes is the cuckoo's - both yellowbilled and blackbilled, but the yellowbill is commonest with us - only song, but not so with their English cousin, whose "cookoo! cookoo! cookoo! cookoo!" in the first balmy evenings of March, is one of the most plaintive, as well as the sweetest of all the bird songs I ever heard.

The English cuckoo, while but infrequently encountered in America, is met with once in a while, more frequently in the middle states, but occasionally as far out here as Nebraska.

While on a spring duck shoot at the Woodduck's Nest up on the fabled Loup, some ten years ago, while sitting one evening with Old Jake on the banks of the river, talking over the events of the day, we were electrified by hearing the tender call of one of these birds, which came floating across the hay fields from a small clump of box alders a mile away. So entranced were we by this rare bit of mournful melody, that my old comrade and I sat without word or motion until the last ventriloquil cry wafted its way gently and sadly down the river's darkening valley and all was still. Then we had lots to say, and congratulated each other on a couple of hunters fortunate enough to hear the real call of the real cuckoo - strange, illusive, sorrowful and beautiful as it is.

Our cuckoos are both slim, graceful birds with a tail, with its white spots, as long as the thrasher's, softest brown on back, pearl-gray beneath; solitary creatures, which glide in and out and among the thickest foliage of the trees as noiseless as a blacksnake climbing an alder stalk, and only when passing through some brief open space do you get a fleeting glimpse of his satiny back and milky lingerie.

It is one of the few birds which devour with gusto the brown and black and yellow caterpillars, with which our walks and our shrubbery is so infested in certain seasons, the hairy, fuzzy, spiney kind that even a barnyard fowl will pass up in disdain. When you notice the webs of the tent caterpillar interlacing the ends of the branches of your fruit trees, long about this time and in the early fall, you may look and listen with much certainty for the yellowbill and his "cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-cow," quavering on the humid atmosphere, for he is almost sure to be somewhere close by, for he is inordinately fond of these repulsive creatures as he is also of the gypsy moth.

But do not believe the tale about our cuckoos being addicted to the nefarious ways of the cow blackbird, which is too lazy and indolent to build a nest of its own, but stealthily deposits its eggs in the nest of a robin, sparrow or other bird, and thereby evades the trying duties of nidification and parental trials, for they do not. The habits of the English cuckoo, however, are identical with the cowbird, and they are guilty of this surreptitious practice.

Our cuckoos both build nests, flimsy, rude, unstable affairs, however, much like work of the turtle dove - a mere platform of sticks that make you wonder how they hold the eggs. But they do, as slender and smooth as these greenish-blue globules are, and the cuckoos are as proud of their home as the oriole or the swamp wren are of theirs, and find it about as complete for their purposes.

While the cuckoos are about the last birds to come up this way from the south in the early summer, they were fully three weeks late this year, and were not seen nor heard until late June or early July.

They are neither demonstrative in song nor action, are really inert for a greater portion of the time, and sulk and hide within the sheltering bowers of the largest leaved trees - like the catalpa, for instance - regarding you suspiciously and avoiding you as much as possible. There is nothing frank or open-mannered about them, and they skulk like culprits at the slightest sign of your presence. Still the cuckoo is a sort of a sacred bird, and a decidedly valuable one, too, and no one would dream of molesting one. They are always welcome - their queer rolling call a delight to the ear, and their total absence would take much indeed away from the perfection of our bird scheme, much from the sweet wild life of our woods and fields.