At nearly half a meter in length, the bay-breasted cuckoo, or cúaa in Spanish, is the largest of the three Coccyzus cuckoos found on Hispaniola. Like the other large cuckoos, its impressive black-and-white banded tail is almost as long as the rest of its body. The bay-breasted cuckoo is distinguished from the other cuckoos by its distinctive dark reddish-brown throat and breast (instead of gray or beige), and by its curved beak. Its unmistakable call, cu aaa, lends this cuckoo its Spanish name. The cúa call is sometimes followed by a rapid guttural uk ak ak ak ak ak ak call, which recalls the croaking of a frog or bleating of a goat. This is likely the basis of the local name in Haiti, “Takó Kabrit”, or goat cuckoo.
Its preferred habitat appears to be the transition zone between dry and wet forests, although it has occasionally been reported in mixed pine forests, dry forests, wet and mountain forests, and even abandoned pastures in agricultural areas. It is generally found below 900 meters of elevation.
Unlike the Hispaniolan lizard-cuckoo, the bay-breasted cuckoo is exceedingly shy and secretive. Observing it is all the more difficult because of its habit of moving swiftly from limb to limb, often staying in the upper branches of tall trees. This, in addition to its rarity, is why there are so few good photographs of this beautiful bird. The bay-breasted cuckoo feeds mainly on lizards and insects. Its short two-month reproductive season appears to be closely tied to the onset of the wet season, that triggers a spike in the population of cicadas, the most common food for their nestlings. Although a number of cuckoo species have made the family infamous for being brood parasites, that is, for laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, the bay-breasted cuckoo builds its own nest and takes care of its own young. They construct their nests of loose sticks, typically in trees that have concealing epiphytes or leaves.
Unfortunately, this species is now in grave danger of extinction. Although its distribution was much broader in the past, habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and charcoal production in the twentieth century caused dramatic decreases in its population. As with lizard-cuckoos, it is reportedly still hunted, owing to the reputed medicinal properties of its meat. In the Dominican Republic, it is now restricted to just two small populations (one north of the Sierra de Bahoruco and the other northwest of the Cordillera Central), each estimated at fewer than 50 pairs.
“But what a voice! Strong, hoarse, alive and prolonged. Was it a parrot? A crow? A parakeet? Then came the sound of a bleating goat.” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
The lack of recent records from Haiti, suggests that it may already be extirpated there. The IUCN Redlist classifies it as endangered, while the Dominican Red List classifies it as critically endangered. Fortunately, a few recent sightings in the Dominican Republic give hope that there may be additional small, local populations, which, if confirmed, will merit immediate protection.