Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz – It’s been another cool, wet spring here in Oz. So much so, that I am beginning to wonder if our once-robust pepper starts will grow to full size before July. Wet springs are not uncommon in our neck of the woods, but we can never be sure what kind of weather we’re in for. The exception being our perennial summer droughts, which can range from average to severe. Yet, in each and every one of the 15 droughty summer’s that we have gardened here, we have always been alerted to impending rainstorms by an uncommon but very welcome recluse that most folks around here call a rain crow.
The rain crow is scientifically known as the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). It is a very shy and extremely quiet bird that spends most of its time in the upper canopy of trees searching out the hairy caterpillars they love to eat. These long, slender birds average around 12” in length and have a wingspan nearing 17” from tip to tip. While generally silent, rain crows do have series of slow, rolling guttural calls that sound a bit like a whining puppy. Listen for them in the morning or early evenings. Click here to listen to two rain crow’s call back and forth to one another.
Rain crows belong to a semi-tropical class of birds that includes the black-billed cuckoo and the greater roadrunner, which is also found here in the Ozarks. Male and female rain crows are soft grayish-brown above and white below. Both have distinctly curved beaks, with a black upper bill and a yellow lower mandible. They also sport four large white spots on the undersides of their long tails, which makes identification easy once you spot one.
The cool thing about rain crows is the way the male and female help one another during nesting. During courtship, the male brings the female food – probably to impress upon her his ability to care for her and their young. Both sexes help build the nest and take turns sitting on their clutch of 3-5 pale blue-green eggs. During the day, the pair take turns incubating the eggs, but only the male sits on the nest at night.
Each time the male arrives to take his turn, he brings his mate an offering of nesting material, which she promptly incorporates into the nest before relinquishing her place to him. Once the chicks hatch, both parents also feed and care for the fledglings, which are often hopping about on nearby branches within a week. By week three, some of the young are able to fly. The first fledglings to leave the nest are often looked after by the male, while the last ones to fly the coop are cared for by the female.
Rain crows are good birds to have around if you’re a gardener because they absolutely love to eat caterpillars – particularly tent and other hairy types. True omnivores, rain crows also eat a wide array of insects such as grasshoppers and beetles, the occasional lizard or frog, bramble fruits and berries, and if the opportunity arises, the eggs of other birds.
And of course, every Ozarker knows that when these shy birds appear suddenly, rain is sure to follow.
I remember the first time Dean and I saw our first rain crow. It had been a dismally hot and dry spring and early summer and we were taking a break from our garden chores in the shade of the big oak trees. We were discussing the dire situation when we suddenly heard a loud rustling in the trees behind us. Thinking it was our trio of juvenile squirrels playing chase, we turned to watch the show – but what we saw was not baby squirrels, but rather a much more uncommon and very welcome guest.
Thankful to set a spell longer, we watched the cuckoo hop about in the high branches of the oak trees. Whenever it flew to another tree, we would slowly reposition ourselves for the best view. We knew that the rain crow had spotted us a long time ago and was tolerating our curiosity. Eventually, our over-attentive gaze spooked it, sending it deep into the woods.
Later in the afternoon, the unseasonable heat was suddenly thwarted by cold, arctic air pushing down from the north. Big thick, black clouds built up into an impressively dense wall cloud that marched steadily across the sky and sent us rushing around battening down the hatches. The storm was building fast and stoked its own fire by sucking hot air into itself, generating strong gusts of wind that moved into the oncoming storm.
Just before it was upon us, the proverbial calm before the storm arrived. For a fleeting moment everything stood still – the silence strung taught as a bow. And then came a torrent of crashing rain. Violent as it was, we looked at each other with relief, for the rain was much needed. And as legend would have it, it was the rain crow that warned us of its coming.
While rain crow numbers go up and down depending on the seasonal availability of food, with caterpillar outbreaks being a main factor, their number have steadily declined throughout their range, which includes the entire third of the eastern United States. Habitat loss is often stated as the primary culprit behind the drop in cuckoo numbers. While that is certainly true, I suggest that the extensive use of persistent and aggressive pesticides will prove to be the primary culprit behind their decline, just as it has been for the monarch butterfly, native and European honey bees, and so many other creatures.
So, the next time you hear a rustling in the trees, take a moment to look deeper into the shadows for a beautiful, but elusive bird that by all appearances, should be living in a tropical rainforest somewhere in the deepest jungles of the world. Should you be lucky enough to spot one, savor the fleeting glimpse of these magnificent birds and remember to do your best to reduce the use of pesticides on your property. And of course, always look to the sky for rain clouds when the rain crow calls.
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.