The Year of the Cuckoo

This appears to be the Year of the Cuckoo. This spring we’ve noticed an especially large number of black-billed (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) and yellow-

Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). Photo Credit. Philina English
Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). Photo Credit. Philina English

billed cuckoos (C. americanus). A comparison of point count data between 2008 and 2009 demonstrates that both cuckoo species are present in much greater numbers this year compared to last. Yellow-billed cuckoos are up by 94% and black-billed cuckoos are up an astonishing 288% compared to last year. The burgeoning cuckoo populations are coincident with a major tent caterpillar outbreak on the Frontenac Arch. Large numbers of forest (Malacosoma disstria) and eastern (M. americanum) tent caterpillars have been present since mid-May. Cuckoos are among the only birds that regularly consume Malacosoma larvae, so they often occur in good numbers to breed where there are tent caterpillar outbreaks. The urticating hairs of tent caterpillars seem to act as an effective deterrent against most foliage-gleaning birds, but cuckoos are specially adapted to deal with the sharp, indigestible hairs. The hairs of the caterpillars stick to the stomach lining of cuckoos. Once the stomach is covered in hairs, the lining is regurgitated as a pellet, leaving the new stomach lining free of hairs. This process may be completed several times throughout the breeding season. It’s an amazing, but poorly understood strategy. Though other birds can occasionally be observed ingesting tent caterpillars, they do so only rarely. Further evidence of increased numbers of cuckoos is suggested by the discovery of two yellow-billed cuckoo nests this season, after several years without one being reported.

Mark Conboy

New QUBS bird list.

Cerulean Warbler - a common denizen of QUBS
Cerulean Warbler - a common denizen of QUBS

Mark Conboy and Paul Martin have provided us with a new annotated bird checklist of QUBS and surroundings. It includes 251 species spanning those known to breed or winter at QUBS, through spring and fall migrants, to those suspected to occur at or migrate through this region based on known ranges or suspected migratory pathways. You can download the list | here |. Be sure to send Mark and Paul comments (contact details in the pdf document).

Interesting bird sightings.

Last week there were (at least) two interesting bird sightings at QUBS. On Bracken Tract Vicki Friesen’s “Conservation biology of birds” class found a yellow-breasted chat, Icteria virens, a large member of the wood warbler family (Parulidae). The species is broadly distributed in the USA but in eastern Canada is typically found in southwestern Ontario and Prince Edward County in eastern Ontario (see range maps here).

The second species of interest is the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), a species common in the southeastern USA but typically found in Carolinean Canada only. This particular individual was seen on the Lindsey Lake property (and actually bounced out of a mist net after responding to a playback tape). Red-bellied woodpeckers are reported ocassionally from upsate New York and from the Kingston area but is not particularly common here. In part this may because their call roughly resembles a gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor). The Ontario Bird Atlas presents a nice synopsis of this species.

Ontario Species at Risk List

Check out this list of Ontario species of conservation concern from the Ministry of Natural Resources – provides a nice vantage on the wide range of species that are at risk in Ontario. The linked maps embed our region in the broader context of each species’ range in Ontario and globally. The status of these species is decided by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO).


Welcome to our new natural history blog. We invite you to post interesting natural history observations, new distributional records for the biological station and environs, pleas for help on biological research, comments on posted articles, and notes on the cultural or geological history of Eastern Ontario. We also will invite new articles/species accounts to be written which we will post here.