Consider the yellow-billed cuckoo.
How many Missoulian reporters over the past century have dreamed of starting a story like that?
It comes up now because the seldom-seen, little-known little bird seems to have a stake in the proposed South Avenue Bridge in Missoula.
Since 2014 the yellow-billed cuckoo has been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A biological assessment published this fall says a new bridge across the lower Bitterroot River “may affect” but is “not likely to adversely affect” the cuckoo, even while noting there’ve been just eight confirmed sightings in western Montana since 1959.
Two were in the vicinity of the proposed bridge. In July 1980 a female with an egg in the oviduct was found in the Orchard Homes area. Another was photographed on Marshall Street in mid-June 2012, and may have been spotted a few days later along Tower Street.
A search of Missoulian and missoulian.newspapers.com online archives reveals 16 matches for “yellow-billed cuckoo” from 1899 to last month’s update on the bridge project by reporter Eve Byron. Almost all were written from not-made-in-Montana perspectives.
A story on Aug. 25, 1899, in the Weekly Missoulian discussed findings by Prof. Lawrence Bruner of the University of Nebraska department of entomology. In a special bulletin “A Plea for the Protection of Our Birds,” Bruner said a study of the stomachs of birds found that the good they do “far exceeds the possible harm.”
As proof he stated that more than 1,000 cankerworms were found in the innards of four chickadees, and a single quail’s stomach contained 101 potato beetles.
“A yellow billed cuckoo shot at 6 o’clock in the morning contained 43 caterpillars,” the report touted.
Bruner estimated the 75 million birds in Nebraska require rations of 1.875 million insects every day.
We checked with our editor to see about repeating a feature the Missoulian ran for the first five months of 1919 — 104 installments of the autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt. She laughed.
In the 61st installment on March 27, Roosevelt lovingly detailed the birds he’d observed in a visit to the Itchen Valley of England in the summer of 1910. When he came home to Sagamore Hill, on the north shore of Long Island, New York, he recalled sitting in his rocking chair on the broad veranda the first evening, “looking across the sound toward the glory of the sunset.”
“The thickly grassed hillside sloped down in front of me to a belt of forest from which rose the golden, leisurely chiming of the wood thrushes, chanting their vespers,” Roosevelt wrote.
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During the next 24 hours he kept track of the birds he saw, “either right around the house or while walking down to bathe, through the woods.” He counted 42 in all, including, of course, the yellow-billed cuckoo.
From May 1944 to March 1960, the Missoulian and more than 100 other newspapers ran a daily column “Answers to Questions” by Haskin Service.
Most were introduced thusly: A reader may get the answer to any question of fact by writing the (in our case) Daily Missoulian Information Bureau, 316 Eye St., N.E. Washington 2, D.C. Please inclose three cents for return postage.
Q. What is the real name of the bird known as a rain crow? V.E. asked in July 1944.
A. The yellow-billed cuckoo is known as the rain crow.
In March 1948:
Q. Are birds on the whole beneficial to man even though some of them are destructive to crops? V.B.E.
A. Birds are sometimes destructive to crops but their service in consuming weeds and insect pests far overshadows any damage they do. Birds consume astonishingly large quantities of food. A young robin may eat 165 cutworms in one day. The stomach of a yellow-billed cuckoo has been known to contain 250 tent caterpillars and the stomach of an owl, 17 mice.
As tracked in old Missoulians, the political struggles over the fate of our cuckoo began early this century. They seemed to culminate in 2014, when the headline over an Associated Press story out of Tucson, Arizona, read: “Cuckoo numbers decline in western U.S. FWS lists yellow-billed bird as threatened.”
But the battle continues. In October, the Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Colorado, reported the Center for Biological Diversity was suing the Fish and Wildlife service over its failure to designate critical habitat to protect the yellow-billed cuckoo in Western states.
The Sentinel quoted a senior attorney for the Center:
“The Trump administration needs to designate critical habitat immediately, before we lose these elegant little songbirds forever," Brian Segee said. “If we're going to keep cuckoos from going extinct, federal officials have got to protect their streamside habitat. Those protections would also have huge benefits for people and communities that need healthy waterways."