Bird of Mystery, Bird of Magic

Yesterday evening as I was wrapping up the day’s work I happened to glance out the window of my studio. My drawing table is set up to take advantage of the corner window with a view of the garden and pond. Beside the pond is a small vitex tree, which the birds use as a waiting room for the bathing area on the upper pond. I never know what’s going to show up but it’s usually a bunting, or cardinal, or titmouse. When I looked out last night there was something bigger, with a long tail and white underparts. A bird I’ve never seen at the pond before. It was a yellow-billed cuckoo, something more often heard than seen but not unexpected. And they’ve been scarce the last couple of years. A few years ago they were everywhere, with one pair even nesting in a pine next to the house where we could watch them come and go.

My first experience with yellow billed cuckoos was back in California, where I’m from originally. Yellow bills were once common there, especially in the rich, riparian Central Valley, with big shady sycamores and vine-festooned Valley oaks offering great habitat for a lot of interesting species. That rich habitat was fragmented, then replaced entirely by development; there is very little left of the riparian habitat in California today. By the time I started birding in the early 1980’s, the cuckoo population was reduced to 5 breeding pairs in the entire state- all concentrated in a remote riparian refuge in Kern County. To see them, my friends and I drove down half the length of the state (a very long day’s drive) and across the desert to near the Colorado river, camped out overnight and met a ranger at the refuge who led a small group of us through deep thickets, tall trees and over fallen logs. A spotting scope was set up in the tangle. One by one we crawled through the tangle and peered through the eyepiece, then crawled back to let the next person have a turn. The view was poor-through the little bits of space between the branches and twigs and vines and leaves I could barely see a nest. Just visible over the lip of it was a curved bill going in one direction, and a long tail going in the other. That was it. We watched for a while, then quietly walked back to our cars and drove another long day’s ride home.

Coming to Oklahoma was a birder’s revelation. The human population is small, the area is large and relatively undeveloped. The habitat is still good. We bought a house with ten acres of wild oaks and grass savannah surrounding it, our own private bird refuge. Here are the species extirpated from my home state, and they breed, sing, bathe and eat and chase each other around in full view of my studio window. We have blue grosbeaks, Bell’s vireos, summer tanagers, pileated woodpeckers, and all sorts of birds that never were in California to begin with except by accident: painted buntings, ruby throated hummingbirds, cardinals, Carolina wrens. And yellow-billed cuckoos, big, handsome birds with a wild call and secretive ways. One that we almost took for granted here, as it seemed common enough.

The one I sketched last night from the upstairs window, in the perfect comfort of my air-conditioned studio and, I might add, with a martini in one hand– that was a special bird, if not quite as hard-won. It materialized at dusk, quietly- an enigmatic phoenix in repose. It waited for its turn at the bath and kindly permitted me to take its image for my own…

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