black-billed cuckoo
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN GOULD/ACADEMY OF NATURAL SCIENCES OF PHILADELPHIA/CORBIS

The Weird Way Cuckoos Protect Vegetable Beds

Plus, how to attract these avian friends to your yard. 

July 20, 2015

Birds, some of which can devour nearly 600 caterpillars a day when rearing chicks, are gardeners’ helpers against these plant-eating larvae. What’s a caterpillar to do to survive? Turns out being hairy is perhaps the best defense against being eaten. Some species of caterpillars grow thousands of bristles, which can clog a bird’s crop, coat its stomach, and pierce the gut wall. Few birds can tolerate such a meal—except for the cuckoo.  

Related: The Secret Ingredient That Keeps Vegetable Beds Pest-Free 

Advertisement
Advertisement

Skulkers of the avian world, yellow- and black-billed cuckoos are often heard but rarely seen. Their guttural “cu-cu-cu” fills the air where furry caterpillars abound. Cuckoos’ favorite foods include some hirsute pests: gypsy moth larvae and tent caterpillars in spring; fall webworms in summer. 

Caterpillar hairs do not bother cuckoos the way they bother other birds because cuckoos vomit up the hairs, stomach lining and all. Cuckoos are the lucky recipients of a special adaptation that enables them to periodically shed the lining of their esophagus and stomach, removing the accumulated mat of hairs. Then they grow a new stomach lining. 

To encourage cuckoos and their pest-control efforts, plant trees to give them the forest-edge habitat they prefer.

Comments