Two years ago this month I saw my first cuckoo. I was sitting on the curb outside my apartment, waiting for a friend to show up, when the leaves on a catalpa tree across the road began to rustle and flutter.
The catalpa had known a rough summer, with nearly all of its leaves stripped bare by catalpa worms. By mid-August, it was a standing horror story, and the ground around it was littered with frass, which is a nice word for caterpillar poop. But nature — or this suburban stand-in for it — is resilient, and in time another flush of leaves came along. On its heels was another generation of catalpa worms, hungry as ever. The cuckoo, which poked an alert head between the leaves every few seconds, was gorging itself on the young worms, and I didn’t feel a bit sorry for them.
At first I thought it was a mockingbird, but its sleekness, its cinnamon-brown plumage and the occasional flash of its patterned tail gave it away. More specifically it was a yellow-billed cuckoo, one of two species resident in North Carolina for part of the year. (The other is the black-billed cuckoo.) Unlike the European cuckoo, these birds don’t spring from clocks on the hour or parasitize the nests of other birds. And neither of them looks anything like the cuckoo of commerce.
And now I’ll make a confession: I’m one of those people who owns a lot of field guides. I read them before bed to relax; thumb through them while I’m on the toilet, you get the picture. And I’ve always loved the idea of cuckoos, with their flashy tails and habit of crowing before rain, but despite the fact that they’re relatively common, I’d never seen one.
When John James Audubon painted the yellow-billed cuckoo, he put a pair of them in a pawpaw tree. They appear to be fighting over a butterfly — a tiger swallowtail — and they look angry at each other, if birds can be said to look angry. Earlier that fall I’d eaten a pawpaw for the first time, and the timing of these two events seemed somehow providential. In light of the fact that I’d just been through an ugly break-up, it was also strangely reassuring, a sort of all-is-right-with-the-world gesture from Mother Nature.
Later that fall I saw another cuckoo, this one dead. It was sprawled at the foot of a big store window in downtown Asheville, and I didn’t need a coroner to figure out the cause of death. (I can only hope that its last thought was something along the lines of, “Damn, I look good.”) I passed it on my way to work, double-bagged it and put it in the freezer with a note inside reading THIS IS KENT’S CUCKOO. Eventually an ultimatum was given and I was encouraged to take the bird home. It’s now been resident in three different freezers, but I have no better idea of what I’ll do with it. Occasionally, I brush against it when reaching for ice cream and I’m reminded that the dead still move among us.
— Kent Priestley, staff reporter