- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant, the Black-billed Cuckoo was uncommon during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Black-billed Cuckoos are found throughout the upper midwestern and northeastern United States, south in the Appalachian Mountains to Tennessee. Two large patches are present from Kansas to northern Missouri and in South Dakota. In Canada, it occurs from the Maritime Provinces to central Alberta. Highest densities are detected from western Wisconsin, through central and northwest Minnesota, to southern Manitoba (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 13/20 by Partners in Flight and designated a Yellow Watch List species; also listed as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and as a Minnesota Stewardship Species by Audubon Minnesota.
Long-distance migrant; winters in South America, but specific distribution is not well known.
Large insects, especially caterpillars and cicadas during outbreaks, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, and occasionally eggs of birds. Cuckoos are known to consume 10 to 15 caterpillars per minute.
Crude, platform-like nest between two branches or close to trunk; relatively low (1–2 m) in thick shrubbery, saplings, or vines.
The Black-billed Cuckoo was described by Roberts (1932) as present throughout the state, but more evenly distributed and more northerly compared with the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The latter is more common in the southern portions of the state. He stated it was a “common summer resident.” Nests with eggs or young were confirmed in Anoka, Grant, Hennepin, McLeod, Roseau, Sherburne, and St. Louis Counties and at Itasca State Park. A nest was also found in Goodhue County.
Forty years later, Green and Janssen (1975) described the Black-billed Cuckoo as a resident throughout the state, but numbers varied considerably, especially in the northern regions. The species was more numerous during outbreaks of tent caterpillars. Janssen (1987) stated it was widespread but never a numerous resident throughout the state. He reinforced that it was more common in the northern forests during outbreaks of tent caterpillars. He reported confirmed nesting records since 1970 from 28 counties, ranging from the northeast and northwest to southwestern Minnesota. Many nesting records existed in the Twin Cities metropolitan region, where observers were also numerous. However, there were no records from the extreme southeastern portion of the state. Janssen highlighted an unusual late nesting record from Sherburne County on September 8, 1974. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) added 6 additional counties to the confirmed nesting of the species since 1970, including 3 from the southeast: Fillmore, Olmsted, and Winona.
The Minnesota Biological Survey recorded 514 locations from virtually all of the counties that have been surveyed (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016). No observations were recorded from Cook County, nor from several counties in the south-central, western, and southern tier of counties in the state. Except in Cook County, this absence is likely due to the status of tent caterpillar populations during the surveys as well as the lower densities of trees and suitable nesting or foraging habitat in many of these areas. This species can be rare or difficult to find when food sources, such as tent caterpillars, are rare.
MNBBA participants included 739 records and substantiated the Black-billed Cuckoos’ wide distribution across the state with the most records of possible nesting (Figure 2). The species was recorded in 13.2% (625/4,741) of the surveyed blocks and 17.9% (418/2,337) of priority blocks. Breeding was confirmed in 29 blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). A total of 11 counties had confirmed nesting records that had not previously been reported. Breeding records were detected in every county in the state except 7 counties in southern Minnesota: Le Sueur, Lincoln, Martin, Meeker, Murray, Nobles, and Scott. One probable nesting record straddled 2 counties, Blue Earth and Nicollet, also in southern Minnesota.
The MNBBA probability distribution map shows that highest densities were predicted in northwestern Minnesota, primarily in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province (Figure 4). Additional areas with higher densities were in west-central Minnesota and scattered areas along the Mississippi River floodplain of southeastern Minnesota. Low densities were predicted throughout much of Minnesota, except for a substantial portion of southern Minnesota and in the extreme northeast. The Black-billed Cuckoo’s predicted distribution is consistent with data from the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which show that it is most abundant from central Minnesota to the extreme northwestern portion of the state (Figure 1).
Hughes (2001) described historical northward movements into New York State, Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritime Provinces in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She suggested that a reason for these expansions was the production of suitable edge habitat resulting from conversion of primeval forests to agricultural land. During breeding bird atlases, both Wisconsin (Cutright et al. 2006) and Michigan (Chartier et al. 2013) reported that the species is more common in the northern portions of these states than in the south.
Black-billed Cuckoos were known in the late 1880s to occur in large flocks between food sources, but those flocks are a thing of the past (Pfannmuller 2012). Historical records from the midwestern United States are limited on whether the species has expanded northward over the past 150 year or if its current distribution is typical. The species’ considerable variation in populations during tent caterpillar outbreaks can also obscure its distribution. Hence, suppositions about historical changes in the distribution of this species in Minnesota remain inconclusive.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.