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HomeTopicsEnvironment and WildlifeCosta Rica Birding: Meet the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo

Costa Rica Birding: Meet the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo

The cuckoos are a family of birds that always pique my interest. I can hear groove-billed anis at this moment exclaiming ‘tijo, tijo…’ to each other in my backyard. They remind me of a pack of wolves the way they seem to coordinate their group efforts. The rufous-vented ground-cuckoo is a birding all-star that one can only hope to encounter one day. The squirrel cuckoo seems to keep tabs on me while I’m in the forest, casting a knowing gaze at me from the trees above. Today’s cuckoo, the lesser ground-cuckoo, is one that had eluded me until recently, though I’ve come to find out that I’ve been hearing them for years.

The lesser ground-cuckoo (Morococcyx erythropygus) is known as the cuclillo sabanero or the cuclillo terrestre in Spanish. Those names roughly translate to little savanna cuckoo and little ground cuckoo respectively. 

These birds aren’t remarkable in size. They’re about ten inches long. Their coloring isn’t terribly striking either.They’re dark brown on top with orangey-brown bellies. What does stand out are their eyes. Their dark eyes have a yellow eye-ring with bright blue skin behind the eye. The yellow and blue are bordered in black that tapers off like ladies who rock that cat eye makeup.

Costa Rica is at the bottom of the lesser ground-cuckoo’s range, which stretches from Guanacaste north into Mexico. Within this range, they prefer scrubby woodlands, edges of forests, and savanna. As their name suggests, they spend most of their time in the undergrowth or on the ground where they hunt for caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other insects.

Something that stood out to me in the videos that I’ve recorded with my camera traps, as well as my recent run-in with a lesser ground-cuckoo is their style of locomotion. They seem to move almost in slow motion. When thinking of how I could describe their style of movement in this article, the best I could come up with was they move like chameleons. Luckily for you, one of my bird books has a better way with words than I do, and it describes their movement as ‘furtive and skulking but often inquisitive’. I think that fits. 

My hunt for interesting lesser ground-cuckoo facts led me to a journal article published by Alexander F. Skutch in 1966.

In it, he describes how he found a lesser ground-cuckoo nest and wanted to see if both the male and female incubate the eggs, so he tricked one of the birds into getting white paint on it to distinguish it from the other and sat there staring at the nest for seven hours. He found that they indeed take turns incubating the eggs, and I found a kindred spirit in the form of a guy who would happily sit and stare at a bird’s nest all day.

I only recently had my first lesser ground-cuckoo sighting in northern Guanacaste. I was checking cameras and caught a glimpse of weird slow motion-like movement on the ground under some scrubby bushes. I took a few steps closer and there was a lesser ground-cuckoo looking at me furtively and inquisitively. Researching this article, I clicked on a few audio files of their call, and I realized that though I’ve only seen one once, but I’ve been hearing them in the field forquite some time. I’ve only recorded them a handful of times with my camera traps. I’m happy to share a few of those clips in the video below.

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