Cuckoos in Florida

This morning I was awakened from one of the most comfortable sleeps I have had in recent memory to the sound of a cuckoo clock. Problem is, the cuckoo clock in my house ran down weeks ago and I stopped bothering to rewind it. And with the windows shut tight, I can’t hear anything from the neighbors unless they’re standing in their yard screaming; I certainly couldn’t hear a clock from inside their houses.

21290778.thmIt was so faint, I thought I might have been dreaming, so I struggled to full wakefulness. Nope, still there. Then I thought that since it seemed to coincide with the tail end of my exhalings, I might be hearing a wheeze from my lungs or something. So I held my breath. Nope, still heard the cuckoo. Could it be the ceiling fan, a ball bearing that is grating on something internal? No, it’s clearly outside the window somewhere.

A real cuckooing cuckoo? In Florida?? Impossible. By the time I was upright, the sound had stopped. A quick Internet search was instructive, though not conclusive: Wikipedia says cuckoos have a “cosmopolitan distribution,” ranging across all the world’s continents except Antarctica, with three species in North America. But while they are “vocal species with persistent and loud calls,” the cuckoo with the familiar sound that gave the family its name is the Common Cuckoo, which is found in Europe. The most likely species in these parts would probably be the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus, or the Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minorhese.

But then I found this post from a blogger who was startled to hear a similar sound in the Ocala National Forest:

One day in April I was down at the river’s edge washing breakfast dishes when I suddenly heard from across the river within the floodplain forest a loud “KOOK-KOO!” It sounded like a cuckoo clock announcing one o’clock. My vertebrate zoology teacher had taught us that the North American cuckoos never made that call, that it was made only by European cuckoos. I retrieved my binoculars and studied the forest over there, but never did see anyone wandering around with a cuckoo clock in hand.

Two days later I heard the same call at about the same time of day, mid-morning. The Cornell Bird Lab states that the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) has 6 calls, and provides textual interpretations of 3 of them, but says nothing about the “kook-koo” call ( Cornell also has two recordings of one of the yellow-billed cuckoo’s calls (

I am left wondering just what it was that I heard on those mornings? Was it a rare type of call that the yellow-billed cuckoo is not otherwise known to make? If so, I was quite lucky to have heard it! This would not be an unusual occurrence, as other birds are known to have many more calls than the average person ever hears. The common crow, for instance, has been said to have over 100 distinct calls, yet most naturalists I know have heard fewer than a dozen of them. The Cornell Lab, in fact, has links to very few yellow-billed cuckoo calls, and the ones it does have are faint, so perhaps this species’ calls have not been sufficiently sampled?

Could the call have been made by an escaped pet European, or common, cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)?

Not all of our Florida cuckoos are birds, however. On Friday I went to the movies. The theater had stadium seating, and shortly before the movie started, a slender man, probably in his mid-30s, came in and sat at the end of my row, a few seats away. He carried so much food and drink it looked like he had bought out the concession stand. He wore what looked like iPod earbuds. And he made noises. Some were noises that you might make if you didn’t realize anyone else could hear you, like little grunts or “settling” noises, but some seemed to be in response to whatever he was hearing. Which he continued to listen to even after the movie started, even though he was apparently watching the film.

About fifteen minutes in, a fellow came in and sat on the steps which were right next to his seat, and they chatted. Not loud enough that I felt compelled to shush them (which I am wont to do), but they chatted nonetheless, for about five minutes. Was this a caretaker of some sort, checking in with his charge? No, they were clearly pals and peers, and they were not theater employees or anything. Friend leaves, and the cuckoo goes back to watching Christian Bale scream at the machines relentlessly taking over the world. I look over after a bit and notice that he’s removed his earphones. Twenty minutes later a different man comes in and sits on the steps next to the cuckoo, and they too chat, but not for as long, and the friend leaves. At one point I let out a guffaw at a funny scene, and the cuckoo makes a sound, too, but it’s not a laugh. It’s more of a deep, short whale song: Ooo-WAW. For the rest of the film he is the picture of normalcy, but the moment the movie ends and the credits start to roll, the cuckoo grabs the leavings of his feast and bolts from the theater as if in an act of desperation. I’m sure I saw a look of panic on his face.

The final cuckoo in this story I met yesterday at 7-Eleven. As I’m heading into the store, a duck is standing on the sidewalk yelling at the storefront. And I mean yelling. Angry, insistent squawking, though one couldn’t really call it a quacking noise. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve heard a duck make that sound before. Couldn’t tell you where the duck came from; there are no duck ponds nearby. Shopping center developers around here routinely place small ponds in front of their parking lots, next to the road; they look nice, and it lets the developers pretend they’re preserving wetlands. The ponds nearby attract egrets and herons, and the occasional ibis or anhinga, but no ducks. The biggest enclave of ducks is up in Melbourne, at the big pond next to the public library. It always makes me nervous to enter that library, since these big honking ducks and geese are wandering all over the grounds, and look for all the world like they’re going to head into the library with you (some seem to want to charge the door), and I don’t want to be responsible for creating a Public Duck Disturbance in a No Talking Zone.

Back to the 7-Eleven. Other cars had pulled up by this time, and their occupants were pointing delightedly at the oblivious, furious duck. I’m thinking it might have been arguing with its own reflection. But then it turned away from the store and started walking away down the sidewalk, doing its pigeon-toed little waddle, still talking a blue streak and rather loudly, but now it was clearly talking to itself, the way a disturbed homeless person pushing a shopping cart down a city street might conduct a long conversation with the voices in his head.

I wonder: Do they manufacture cuckoo clocks that groan like a whale or quack like a frustrated duck?

Categories: Birds, Life in Florida | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Cuckoos in Florida

  1. A pigeon-toed duck? Perhaps a duck-walking pigeon?

    People think we know so much about the animals we live with but, really, we don’t. New discoveries are made all he time. Weekly, as a matter of fact. They are given no attention, and the public carries the myth that we know all, that the world has been splayed open for us and we know that is inside and out. Nothing is beyond our sight.

    I think there may be a cuckoo that is, though. And it will be up to enthusiasts to find, photograph, and record it.

    The other cuckoo is one of the reasons I don’t go to movies.

  2. I agree with Adam — I rarely go to public movie showings — preferring to watch movies at home.

    On the other hand, I have not developed a fondness for cuckoo clock — I prefer my Jeeves clock.

  3. Theophrastus, that is VERY cool.

  4. indigo bunting

    I was at a bird-banding workshop/demo Saturday morning and, most oddly, a black-billed cuckoo was caught and banded.

  5. Kathy

    I too live in Florida and heard the “cocoon” today in my backyard. We have lived here for 25 years and this was a first for me. 7:15 am no neighbors around but lots and lots of birds. “He” was hidden in a thick strand of bamboo and trees so I could not see him. Probably made 15 calls and then stopped.

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