Southwest Biological Science Center

Funded by Bureau of Reclamation

U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 2008-1177
Version 1.0

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat Use Along the Lower Colorado River and Its Tributaries, 2007 Annual Report

By Matthew J. Johnson, Scott L. Durst, Christopher M. Calvo, Laura Stewart, Mark K. Sogge, Geoffrey Bland, and Terry Arundel


Close-up photo of bird in a tree.  It indeed has a yellow bill
Yellow-billed Cuckoo ©Bob Steele

Executive Summary

This 2007 annual report details the second season of a 2-year study documenting western yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus occidentalis) distribution, abundance, and habitat use throughout the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program boundary area. We conducted cuckoo surveys at 40 sites within 14 areas, between 11 June and 9 September 2007. The 169 surveys across all sites yielded 163 yellow-billed cuckoo detections. Cuckoos were detected at 25 of the 40 sites, primarily at the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) study area (n = 139 detections; 85 percent of all detections). Detections declined slightly through the cuckoo breeding season, with most detections occurring in the first and second survey periods (n = 92; 54 percent). We detected breeding activity only at the Bill Williams River NWR, where we confirmed 27 breeding events, including two nesting observations. However, the breeding status of most detected birds was unknown.

We used playback broadcast recordings to survey for yellow-billed cuckoos. Compared to simple point counts or surveys, this method increases the number of detections of this secretive, elusive species. It has long been suspected that cuckoos have a fairly low response rate, and that the standard survey method of using broadcast recordings might fail to detect all birds present in an area. In 2007, we found that the majority (84 percent) of cuckoo detections were solicited through broadcast at all study sites. The number of solicited detections was highest during the first survey period and declined as the breeding season progressed, while the number of unsolicited detections (cuckoos heard calling before broadcast was initiated) remained fairly constant through the first, second, and third survey periods. The majority (66 percent) of cuckoo detections, solicited or unsolicited, were aural, 23 percent were both heard and seen, and 11 percent were visual detections only. We also found that 50 percent of all responses by cuckoos were evenly split between the first and second broadcasts at sites with >10 detections, while 45 percent of responses occurred after a single broadcast at the sites with <10 detections.

We refined our collection of vegetation data in 2007 and found that across the entire study area the dominant tree species were tamarisk (Tamarix spp.), willow (Salix spp.), and cottonwood (Populus spp.). The smallest size class (<8 cm diameter at breast height) trees were the most common and were dominated by tamarisk, but cottonwood and willows were well represented in the larger size classes. Sites that were occupied by yellow-billed cuckoos generally had higher canopies, denser cover in the upper layers of the canopy, and sparse shrub layers compared to unoccupied sites that consistently had higher densities of woody species. As most occupied sites were within the Bill Williams River NWR and most unoccupied sites were at Grand Canyon National Park/Lake Mead National Recreation Area, vegetation characteristics at these study areas drove the cuckoo distribution patterns we observed in 2007. However, there was a range of habitat conditions in locations that were used by yellow-billed cuckoos across the entire lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program study area.

We measured microclimate variables (temperature, relative humidity, soil moisture) at occupied and unoccupied sites, and found that, across the entire study area, occupied sites were consistently cooler during the day and more humid during the day and night compared to unoccupied sites, but that soil moisture did not differ between occupied and unoccupied sites. While most cuckoo detections occurred at Bill Williams River NWR, with generally cooler and more humid conditions, cuckoos were also detected at study areas that had hotter and dryer microclimate conditions. We did not find any relationship of canopy cover characteristics to temperature or soil moisture, suggesting that more complicated factors are involved in determining microclimate regime, possibly including canopy height, dominant tree species, proximity to water, the nature of surrounding habitat, or other variables. Although microclimate conditions might play a significant role in cuckoo habitat selection or breeding ecology, the factors underlying microclimate conditions in riparian patches are not currently fully understood.

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