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Window-Strike: Please, Not a Black-billed Cuckoo!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

I was in the kitchen when it hit the window. It was one of those sickening BONK's with an added CRACK from the strike of the bird's bill on glass. My neck snapped around just in time to allow me to see a pair of long brown wings flash up into a helpless vee. And the bird dropped like a stone, two stories down. 

My birdwatcher's brain went into high rev, processing what little information it had received in the split second after the bird's impact. Brown. Large, wingspan approaching 20".  Either mourning dove or cuckoo.  Mourning dove vastly more likely. But wing shape and color wrong, not grayish, the flight feathers too warm and brown for a dove. Bill went crack on window glass. Mourning doves have a soft, rubbery bill. That kind of bill doesn't make a cracking noise. DAMN IT!!! Cuckoo. DAMN IT!! ARRRGH!!

I was already tearing down the basement steps on the shortest route to the backyard. I was swearing, wailing, chanting. Please, please, please don't let it be a cuckoo. Not again. No no no no no.
Not a cuckoo, not a cuckoo, not a... 

No. No. No. Not just a cuckoo, but a black-billed cuckoo,  rarer of the two that occur here, and the second black-billed to hit this summer. The first, an adult, had died. No. 

I had grabbed my phone as I hurtled out of the kitchen, because I always want a camera with me when I go outside, when I'm investigating. I felt like a horrible creep for photographing a bird in its death throes, but oh God it was so, so beautiful, head thrown back in its anguish, a modern Archaeopteryx.  It was an unforgettable moment, an indelible image. It had landed on concrete. No.

I could see by the yellow eye-ring that this was a recently-fledged juvenile, which made its chances of surviving the impact all the more slim. Such a young bird would have a paper-thin skull, the double layers still forming in a process called ossification, which builds honey-comb struts of porous bone between two solid plates of bone, strengthening it immeasurably. This one hadn't had time to make an ossified skull.

A poor candidate for rehab, or even survival. No, no, no. 

Another bonk, this one light, without a cracking sound. I looked up quickly, unbelieving, to see a second black-billed cuckoo striking the exact spot on the window that stopped its friend. It flew back to a birch and perched in plain sight as I knelt beside its fallen friend. A juvenile, with a yellow eye ring, exactly the same plumage and age as this one. This cuckoo gave a scolding rattle and cocked its head at me. Its message was plain. 

"That's my sister! She hit the window. Take care of her." 

I will do my best, sweetheart. I'm so, so sorry. I'm going to get some netting up over this window, too.  You be careful. I've got to take her inside for awhile.

July 8, 2016

I picked it up, away from the ravenous chipmunks and gray squirrels that constantly patrol our foundation for just such treats. I couldn't believe it was still breathing. It was a patchwork of molt, grayish-brown juvenile plumage, fringed with white, being replaced by brighter, warmer russet feathers of adulthood. I was surprised by the amount of rufous in the primaries, and for a moment doubted my initial ID as a black-billed cuckoo. But a yellow-billed this age would have a bright yellow mandible. Note how the impact has misaligned its bill--you can see the mandible tip sticking out to the bird's right. Not good.

For these two cuckoos, the tail is the clincher. Yellow-billeds have quarter-sized white spots at the end of each tail feather. And black-billeds have tiny white spots, especially at this age.  Note also the grayish-buff underparts. Yellow-billeds are much whiter and cleaner. At this point, I'm figuring this bird is going to be another specimen for the freezer, and eventual donation to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Might as well take some ID shots. 

I brought it inside and put it in a small Critter Keeper on a soft towel. I plumped up the towel to support its head and put it in a corner of the studio where I could keep an eye on it. It lay, not moving a muscle, for three hours. 

I put a peanut butter jar lid of mealworms and one of water in with it. It ignored the food, lying with its eyes closed, breathing. Another hour passed. Clearly, this wasn't one that was destined to revive and "fly away." 

Better feed it, or it's going to use up what reserves it has, just trying to survive the impact. I mixed up some Mazuri Nestling Hand-feeding Formula #5S90 (for insectivores). This stuff, available in a 1KG bag from,  is my new favorite formula--a finely ground vitamin-fortified meal that mixes up velvety-smooth, perfect for syringe-feeding nestlings and compromised adults, too.  Nestlings fed this formula make the most beautiful fecal sacs, and adult droppings are gorgeous, too. Do I sound like a mom? Well, you can judge the health of a bird (or a baby!) by the consistency and color of its droppings. So there. The brilliant Virginia bird rehabilitator Connie Sale, who expertly raises everything from hummingbirds to jays to wrens to woodpeckers and back again, turned me onto Mazuri. The thing that convinced me to take the plunge were her photos of fecal sacs from wrens fed Mazuri. Ha! Rehabber to rehabber, it's all about the poop. I'll never grind kitten chow again! and I've got a beautiful one-kilogram bag of Mazuri #5S90 in my fridge, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice.

By nightfall, the cuckoo was able to raise its head and look around a little. There's no doubt in my mind it would still have been lying under the kitchen window, though; it couldn't move at all, nor did it seem to be with it enough to pick up mealworms or even drink. I force-fed it every couple of hours until bedtime. 

It seemed a bit stronger, and I didn't want it to suddenly come to in the small Critter Keeper, so I installed it on the floor of a spacious cage, one that had housed Vanna, the World's Longest-lived Savannah Sparrow, for 17 1/2 years.  I put the cage in Charlie's glassed-in aviary, now my mailroom and sometime rehab room. 

When I peeked in the same night, July 8, just before I went to bed, the sweetest sight greeted my eyes.
Somebody's able to PERCH!! Good night, sweet angel. Now I think I can safely say,

"See you in the morning!" 


phew, thank you for this message of HOPE. cuckoos are such awesome birds, and we all love a happy ending, whenever possible. unlucky cuckoo, hitting a window. LUCKY cuckoo that it was Miss Julie's window, and it was rescued, fed, and should be saved to fly away.

The couple of times something like this happened, it has broken my heart. I was wondering: my local Wild Birds Unlimited has these appliqu├ęs that you can put on likely windows that, if I remember correctly, register color more in the UV range and the birds can see them and thus know that they'd better turn. I have them in a couple places where I had apparent bird strikes, and I've been lucky so far, but I wonder if you had heard of such things and if they really work. I don't have the packaging right now, so I can't come up with a brand.

fantastic ending for this beautiful bird...

I have used the window decals for birds for years and yes, they DO work. We glassed in our covered porch a number of years ago and that first summer it was almost a daily occurrence when a bird would hit. We put the decals up after a week of this and the hits have all but stopped. Maybe once or twice a year we hear a hit but never on those windows. It is also a very inexpensive fix.

I have never seen a cuckoo, but what a handsome bird. So glad she is doing well. Whew!

I read on, ready to start bawling at a moment's notice. Whew! I can put the tissues away.... I'm so glad that you were there and knew what to do.

Posted by Anonymous July 14, 2016 at 5:48 PM

What good news. The whole world need more stories like this.


Oh wow! I hope she makes it. Thanks for doing what you do one bird at a time.

The "pose" of your stricken bird as it lay on the ground would make Audubon proud! Fortunately, unlike many of the birds posed by Mr Audubon, your treasure lived!
Cop Car

Posted by Anonymous July 22, 2016 at 2:54 PM
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