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Yesterday around noon and again this morning early, a black-billed cuckoo has been calling from the woods’ edge. He sounds like the spirit-world counterpart of his commoner cousin the yellow-billed.

Cuckoos of either species are mysterious birds, so oftener heard than seen, skulking in the thickest parts of the forest canopy where they wait motionless for long periods before rocketing into action, ambushing their caterpillar prey. “Cuckoos eat many spiny caterpillars and the spines stick in the lining of the stomach,” the webpage for the black-billed cuckoo informs us. “The stomach lining is periodically shed to remove the spines.”

The first time I got a good look at one, I realized suddenly where those long, narrow-bodied birds in Pennsylvania German folk art came from. Messenger of love, said Europeans about the cuckoo’s old-world namesake, which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds so it can spend all its time in courtship. Raincrow, the Indians called both the yellow- and black-billed cuckoos for their tendency to call more frequently before storms. They also typically return at the same time as the early-summer rains.

The cuckoo is one of the last neotropical migrants to arrive in North America and has very little time to build a nest, find a mate, lay its eggs and raise its young. To do so, it has evolved a unique nesting strategy. It is able to time its egg laying with outbreaks of insects (especially caterpillars) so that it has a rich food source for itself and its young. Its incubation/nestling period is the shortest of any known bird. Its egg develops rapidly, and at hatching is one the heaviest of all North American songbirds. This is because the chick will have very little rearing time before embarking on its transcontinental migration – it must complete much of its development while still in the egg and come out ready to go. The nestlings are fledged from the nest 6-7 days after hatching, and are off to South America at three or four weeks of age.

Thus the Center for Biological Diversity, based in the western U.S. where the yellow-billed cuckoo is nearly extinct as a result of habitat destruction.

This morning at first light a thrush flies past the porch on loud wings, like a fast smack of oars against the surface of a pond. A bat loops and dives, half-visible against the darker trees. It has been astonishingly humid, with daily and sometimes hourly thunderstorms. The raincrows call almost without a pause. Walking in the woods has become, for me, a misery of sweat and deerflies. If the air were any thicker, we would need periscopes to find our way.



Mind poised at
the tipping point
in a fantasy of perpetual motion
like an old-fashioned toy,
wooden bird hinged
at the hips that bends
again & again into
the undiminished fuel
of its reflection.
Last week, I saw
the sun in the surface
of a bog: it bubbled.
It trilled like a toad.
The alchemists
would be pleased, mercury
now lurks nearly everywhere.
Its needle threads the eye
of mother’s milk, quick-
silver fin & feather, legs
of a heron. Extract
of death, let us dance.
Let our bones be honey-
combed with light.
Bulbous, wedded
to our rituals,
we take turns bending
at the hips.

2 Replies to “Raincrow”

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