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Results of Four Years of Yellow-billed Cuckoo Surveys on Coronado National Forest


Abstract: The Tucson Audubon Society conducted Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) surveys on the Coronado National Forest during July and August over four years in 2015-2018. The surveys used the official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocol (Halterman et al. 2015) in 10 of the Sky Island mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona: Atascosa, Chiricahua, Huachuca, Patagonia, Rincon, Santa Catalina, Santa Rita, Tumacacori, and Whetstone mountains, and Canelo Hills. Over 4 years of surveys Tucson Audubon documented 84 Yellow-billed Cuckoo territories consisting of 36 breeding territories and 48 occupied territories within the Coronado National Forest.  In the past, Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been occasionally recorded during the breeding season by scientists and birders in higher-elevation drainages and around lakes in the foothills of sky island mountain ranges ̶ areas not typically considered as standard Yellow-billed Cuckoo habitat. Drainages surveyed by Tucson Audubon are typically within the Madrean pine-oak woodland ecoregion, with evergreen oaks (Quercus spp.) often bordered by either mesquites (Prosopis spp.) or junipers (Juniperus spp.). While surveyed drainages can include Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii), Gooding’s willow (Salix gooddingii), and other riparian obligate species, in no drainage did they constitute a typical riparian gallery forest dominated by cottonwoods and willows. Most surveyed drainages were dominated by oak with a border of juniper and mesquite trees while the immediate riparian zone was interspersed with Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii), netleaf hackberry (Celtis laevigata), and other mesic species.

Population Decline and Federal Listing in the West

In the fall of 2014 the western population of Yellow-billed Cuckoos was officially added to the federal register of Endangered and Threatened Species as Threatened. The range of the western distinct population segment of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (wYBCU) has been greatly reduced primarily due to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and altered hydrological patterns. Over the last century the population in California has decreased from an estimated 15,000 pairs before the 1850s to the current estimated population of about 40 pairs, representing about 0.3 percent of their previous numbers. As of 2005, the number of known western Yellow-billed Cuckoos has declined significantly in the past eighty years in Arizona. In Arizona, there is an estimated current population of between 170 – 250 pairs as of 2015 which represents the highest concentration in the United States. Arizona is thus an important stronghold in the United States for the western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. No more recent estimates are available for the current population in Arizona in spite of multiple studies that have happened since 2015 within Arizona, including this study, which will likely adjust the Arizona population estimates significantly. Several habitat modeling studies have been recently published but all focus on a specific area such as the Bill William NWR and the Colorado River. It seems likely that better state-wide population estimates will be available in the near future.

Tucson Audubon partnered with Coronado National Forest in 2015 to survey for Yellow-billed Cuckoos on southeastern Arizona’s Madrean Sky Island mountains ranges. Tucson Audubon staff and key volunteers were issued a permit by the USFWS to survey this sensitive species based on past experience with call-back surveys for Yellow-billed Cuckoos and were required to attending special training.

In the American West Yellow-billed Cuckoo habitat has long been associated with cottonwood and willow gallery forest along rivers, creeks and other drainages and the draft Critical Habitat focused on this habitat type. Tucson Audubon publicly commented that drainages in the Madrean pine-oak zone of the Sky Island mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona should be further evaluated for inclusion as critical habitat as a nesting Yellow-billed Cuckoo was documented in 2014 during a Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival trip to Montosa Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. So when Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers began surveying in this habitat type in 2015 we didn’t really know what to expect.

Sky Islands of Coronado National Forest

During 2015-2018 Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers surveyed 10 mountain ranges on the Coronado National Forest and documented 84 territories of cuckoos. The number of routes surveyed has varied year to year and results of what we found over the last 4 years is summarized in the table below and showed visually on the map. In 2015 Tucson Audubon surveyed 44 total routes in 8 mountain ranges. Of those 44 routes, 28 had four visits and 16 had fewer than 4 visits. In 2016, Tucson Audubon surveyed 16 routes in 5 mountain ranges, 10 of which were visited 4 times and 6 visited fewer than 4 times. In 2017 Tucson Audubon surveyed 22 routes within 5 mountain ranges. Of those routes 14 were surveyed all 4 protocoled visits(confusing 14 and 4) and 8 were surveyed fewer than 4 times, mainly due to denied access resulting from the Burro Fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains.  In 2018 Tucson Audubon surveyed 12 routes, 6 of which were surveyed 4 times and 6 that were surveyed fewer than 4 times. In all years, when routes were surveyed fewer than 4 times the cause of survey windows being missed was access problems (i.e. fire or flooding), routes being moved due to habitat deemed unsuitable, or funding coming late.

These results take into account repeat territories over multiple years and avoid double counting. Breeding Territories is defined as an area where breeding behavior was observed (i.e. pair together in good habitat, carrying food etc.) as defined by the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, and Occupied Territory is where Yellow-billed Cuckoos were observed but breeding behavior not documented. This table shows the results of Tucson Audubon cuckoo surveys on the Coronado NF from 2015-2018 and does not include additional surveys on Pima County lands or at Paton Center for Hummingbirds which were also surveyed by Tucson Audubon.

Mountain Range # Breeding Territories # Occupied Territories
Atascosa Highlands             10             17
Canelo Hills             9             4
Chiricahua Mountains             0             1
Huachuca Mountains             0             4
Patagonia Mountains             1             6
Rincon Mountains             7             2
Santa Catalinas             2             1
Santa Rita Mountains             6             7
Tumacacori Mountains             1             4
Whetstone Mountains             0             2
Total             36             48
Grand Total: 84 Yellow-billed Cuckoo territories


Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains

Figure 2. Map of Atascosa and Tumacacori Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys

Key for all maps:
Yellow: survey done but no detection
Red: positive detection
Blue: pair
Green: carrying food
Purple: nest

Since these two ranges occur in such close proximity for the sake of this article they will be considered together. The Atascosas and Tumacacoris were surveyed for Yellow-billed Cuckoos by Tucson Audubon in 2015 at Arivaca Lake, Rock Corral Canyon, Sycamore Canyon, Pena Blanca Lake, and Pena Blanca Canyon. In 2017 two routes in the Sopori area of the Tumacacoris along with Bellatosa , Pesquiera, and Mariposa canyons in the Atascosas were all surveyed. Over these 2 years, Yellow-billed Cuckoos were detected on every route.

For the 2015 surveys of this area the Atascosa Mountains was the area where the most cuckoos were recorded. The remoteness and difficulty of access presented some logistical challenges worth noting for future surveys. Rock Corral Canyon had two occupied territories where surveyors watched a cuckoo foraging in the ocotillos () that line the canyon walls, very atypical behavior. Sycamore Canyon had 2 breeding territories and 1 occupied territory. During a survey at this location, an entire family of Elegant Trogons, both parents and 2o full-sized fledglings, flew towards surveyors in response to a cuckoo playback call. A cuckoo was recorded once at the entrance to Peña Blanca Canyon. Surveyors also discovered Rufous-capped Warblers in this canyon, an unusual siting that led many recreational birders to visit the canyon in ensuing weeks, none of which reported any cuckoos.  Peña Blanca Lake had at least 2 breeding territories, 1 of which contained the only nest found during our 2015 surveys, and the other was documented twice by canoe used at this location to access the more remote side of the lake. At Arivaca Lake, survey teams found 3 breeding territories and 4 occupied territories. There may be more territories in some of the lush canyons draining into the lake. However, these canyons were abandoned early in the survey window without full exploration after the survey crew encountered drug smugglers.

The Tumacacori Mountains were surveyed for cuckoos by Tucson Audubon for the first time in 2017. This low-elevation range was surveyed in two routes within the Sopori area designated by the CNF. One route closely followed Sardinia Canyon, and 2 occupied cuckoo territories were documented. This route was also notable for the large riparian trees found there and abundant riparian bird species such as Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) and Gray Hawk (Buteo nitidus). The other route was located north of the first and contained 2 smaller drainages than the first route and 1 breeding territory and 2 occupied cuckoo territories were documented.

Within the Atascosas the 2017 routes were farther east and in more shallow canyons than the 2015 routes, and during both survey years many cuckoo territories were documented. The 3routes surveyed were all shallow canyons with gently sloping walls that had abundant mesquites and oaks trees along both the drainage bottoms and canyon walls. The habitat on the first visit to each of these canyons was in early July and the canyons were quite dry, but by August they were lush with green vegetation and buzzing with insects. In 2017 Bellatosa Canyon had 2 occupied territories and 1 breeding territory documented. Surveyors observed a pair of cuckoos moving together with 1 carrying nesting material. Mariposa Canyon runs north directly from the United States southern border and had 1 breeding territory and 3 occupied territories. This route is notable for not having any cuckoo detections on the first 3 surveys, but having them only on the fourth protocol visit and on a fifth extra survey of the route. Pesquiera Canyon had 4 occupied territories and has large stands of short mesquites on its northern end and the southern three-fourths of the route have scattered, large oak trees on the canyon bottom and on the canyon walls.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Atascosa Mountains in 2015 and 2016 in 7 routes with 10 breeding territories and 17 occupied territories documented. The Tumacacori Mountains were surveyed in 3 routes with 1 breeding territory and 4 occupied territories  documented.

Canelo Hills

Figure 3. Map of Canelo Hills showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys. Parker Canyon Lake is also labeled for clarity.

The Canelo Hills, the foothills region between the Huachuca and Patagonia mountains, was exceptionally green and lush during the monsoon season when surveys were conducted. For the 2015 surveys Yellow-billed Cuckoos were documented in 4 out of the 5 survey routes in the Canelo Hills. Three of those drainages supported multiple Yellow-billed Cuckoo territories. Many surveyors here also reported Elegant Trogons responding, sometimes stridently, to the broadcasted cuckoo call. Interestingly, Elegant Trogons had never been reported to eBird from the Canelo Hills, and every survey we conducted there encountered them. In Collins Canyon, located north of Parker Canyon Lake, 1 cuckoo breeding territory was found with a confirmed pair exhibiting breeding behavior. Lyle and Korn canyons were both surveyed, and it appears that some cuckoos were utilizing both canyons. Between these two canyons, 3 breeding territories and 1 occupied territory were documented. One occupied territory was documented in Merritt Canyon, which is a broad oak- and juniper-lined drainage. The Sunnyside and Scotia canyons area was surveyed twice and no cuckoos were detected. The habitat in the Canelo Hills was nearly devoid of mesquites, which is interesting to note for evaluating the needs of nesting cuckoos. The routes surveyed in 2016 were farther west than the 2015 routes. Both Cherry Creek and Dove  Canyon, nearly abutting the San Rafael grasslands, were excellent nesting habitat for  cuckoos with multiple breeding territories identified. Alamo Canyon is farther west and located much farther north than other routes surveyed either year in the Canelo Hills. The habitat in Alamo Canyon differed from the other surveyed drainages in the Canelo Hills by having smaller trees and a sparser mid- and understory. The variety and abundance of insect species were also lower in this drainage than others surveyed.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Canelo Hills in 2015 and 2016 in 6 routes with 9 breeding territories and 4 occupied territories documented.

Chiricahua Mountains

Figure 4. Map of Chiricahua Mountains showing locations of routes surveyed and detections. NOTE – updated map needed for 2018 surveys

This mountain range is famed for its biodiversity and richness of bird species. For the 2015 surveys, the only portion of the range surveyed was on the east side and centered on the Cave Creek complex, including the often birded South Fork of Cave Creek. There were no detections of cuckoos  anywhere  on these routes despite diligent surveying. A cuckoo was detected several times throughout the breeding season in the nearby town of Portal but never in the Coronado National Forest. Seven canyons were surveyed in the Chiricahua Mountains in 2017, and 5 were different than the routes surveyed in 2015. The 5 canyons surveyed in 2015 were all located on the east side of the mountain range with the 2017 surveys conducted on both the east and west sides of this large mountain range. In Ida Canyon there were no cuckoo detections. In Pinery Canyon there was 1 detection of a cuckoo that was positively confirmed by the observer. The other 5 routes in Cave Canyon, East Turkey Creek, Pine Canyon, Rucker Canyon, South Fork of Cave Creek, and West Turkey Creek had no cuckoo detections in 2017. The 2018 surveys focused on the northeast portion of the range, and 4 routes were surveyed on the first survey window. Two of the routes were moved as the habitat was determined to be totally unsuitable for cuckoos. The new routes were then surveyed 3 times each. Of the 6 routes surveyed there were no cuckoo detections. Of all cuckoo surveys done by Tucson Audubon in the Chiricahua Mountains in 2015, 2017, and 2018 only 1 cuckoo was detected. It seems that Yellow-billed Cuckoos do occur in this range in low density but are not abundant enough to be detected even in suitable habitat. Tucson Audubon has plans to survey a different portion of the range in 2019.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Chiricahua Mountains in 2015, 2016 and 2018 in 15 routes with 1 occupied territory with only a single detection documented on an official survey.

Huachuca Mountains

Figure 5.Map of Huachcua Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys.

Surveys conducted in 2015 within the Huachuca Mountains documented 2 occupied territories and cuckoos were detected twice in Miller Canyon. Surveys in Hunter Canyon resulted in 1 cuckoo detection. In Ramsey and Carr canyons no cuckoos were recorded. These 4 canyons are all located on the eastern side of the Huachuca Mountains. Three canyons were surveyed in the Huachucas in 2016, and all were different than the 4 surveyed in 2015. The three canyons surveyed in 2016 were located on the southern end of the mountain range close to the international border and west of the Coronado National Monument. In Ida Canyon there were no cuckoo detections. In Copper Canyon there was 1 cuckoo detected during the first survey visit; this bird did not exhibit breeding behavior and was thought by the surveyors to be moving through the area. Bear Canyon had 2 cuckoo detections, but no breeding behavior was documented.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Huachuca Mountains in 2015 and 2016 in 7 routes with 4 occupied territories documented.

Patagonia Mountains

Figure 6- Map of Patagonia Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys

The Patagonia Mountains were surveyed only in 2015 and proved to contain suitable habitat, as cuckoos were recorded in 4 out of the 5 drainages surveyed. In Finley and Adams canyons, 3 occupied territories were documented. Paymaster Creek at Flying R Ranch was found to have 1 occupied territory, where cuckoos were detected in both July surveys, but not during the 2 August surveys. In Washington Gulch 1 occupied territory was found. In Sycamore Canyon both an occupied territory and a breeding territory were documented.  The pair was observed displaying breeding behavior, including observations of food carrying and copulation. Endless Chain was the only route surveyed with no wYBCU detections. This mountain range is an underbirded gem near the town of Patagonia. This lush Sky Island is shorter elevationally than many of the other mountain ranges in southeast Arizona and contains extensive Madrean oak habitat. This is an excellent mountain range for many species including Elegant Trogon, Eastern “Azure” Bluebird (Sialia sialis fulva), Montezuma Quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae), and Arizona Woodpecker (Picoides arizonae).

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Patagonia Mountains only in 2015 in 5 routes with 1 breeding territory and 6occupied territories being documented.

Rincon Mountains

Figure 7.Map of Rincon Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys

Areas in the Rincon Mountains were surveyed at the request of Coronado National Forest for the first time in 2016 and focused on drainages in the Happy Valley area. Two routes were surveyed along different portions of Paige Creek, and both provided excellent nesting habitat for cuckoos and contained multiple breeding territories. Breeding and nesting behaviors, such as carrying food, were observed. Ash Creek, to the south of Paige Creek, had no cuckoo detections. The habitat appeared to be narrow and sparse. Both Turkey Creek and Miller Canyon are tributaries into Paige Creek, and although they appeared to provide suitable habitat for cuckoo nesting, no cuckoos were detected in either canyon. A route along Happy Valley Road, paralleling Paige Creek farther upstream than the other two Paige Creek routes, was also surveyed but yielded no cuckoo detections.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Rincon Mountains only in 2016 in 5 routes with 7 breeding territories and 2 occupied territories documented in the Happy Valley area.

Santa Catalina Mountains

Figure 8.Map of Santa Catalina Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys

The Santa Catalina Mountains are a large Sky Island range north of Tucson with many different habitat types and life zones at the different elevations traveling up the mountain range. In 2015, surveys were conducted in Sabino Canyon, Tanque Verde Canyon, Pima Canyon, and Ventana Canyon in the foothills. Higher elevation surveys covered Molino Creek, Bear Canyon, the Butterfly Trail, and Sycamore Reservoir. Although surveyor expectations were high for finding  cuckoos in the Santa Catalinas, none were found on the southern or western aspects of this mountain range. Surveyors even covered the remote Canyon del Oro without finding cuckoos. The only detection of cuckoos in the Santa Catalinas was in Peppersauce Canyon (at Peppersauce Campground) on the north end of the range, where a pair was documented. Large and varied, the Santa Catalina Mountain range was surveyed in 11 locations in 2015. Cuckoos were only found along Peppersauce Canyon. For 2016, Peppersauce Canyon was the only drainage surveyed and a breeding territory was identified very close to where the 2015 surveys identified a pair. Permission was obtained to cross a private inholding allowing the surveys to continue farther east along the drainage in 2016 than in 2015 when we had to stop at the eastern end of the inholding. Another breeding territory was identified within this portion of the drainage. During the 2017 surveys there were 6 canyons surveyed and cuckoos were not detected in Peppersauce Canyon but an occupied territory was documented in Italian Trap. The other routes surveyed in 2017; Alder Canyon, Buehman Canyon, Campo Bonito and Stratton Canyon had no cuckoo detections. In 2018, Peppersauce Canyon, Campo Bonito, and Southern Belle Mine area were all surveyed with cuckoos being detected again in Peppersauce but not in the other two routes. Peppersauce was carefully surveyed, and an active Yellow-billed Cuckoo nest was found and observed.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Santa Catalinas Mountains in all 4 years in 17 routes with 2breeding territories and 1 occupied territory documented.

Santa Rita Mountains

Figure 9.Map of Santa Rita Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys

The Santa Rita Mountains are a recreation destination for many residents of Tucson and Green Valley and is a favorite among birders of southeast Arizona. The range has many drainages that support lush native vegetation. and many of the higher elevation drainages are excellent habitat for Elegant Trogon. As an excellent example of a Sky Island with madrean oak habitat there is a thriving community of native birds in this mountain range and was excellent for cuckoos in the drainages that we surveyed. In 2015, 5 routes were surveyed, and 4 separate breeding territories exist in Montosa Canyon, located on the southwestern slope of this range. Both copulation and food carrying were breeding behaviors observed in this canyon. One occupied territory was recorded in Proctor Creek, 2 occupied territories in Florida Canyon, and 2 territories in Box Canyon. One territory in Box Canyon had a nesting pair where surveyors observed the pair carrying food, presumably into an unseen nest. The 2017 surveys were within 4 drainages, 2 of which were repeated from 2015 and cuckoos were detected again in 2017 within Florida and Box canyons. The two previously unsurveyed routes in Mansfield and Smith, both located in the southwest end of the range, both had cuckoo territories documented in 2017. Mansfield Canyon itself did not have any cuckoo detections, and the 2 detections of cuckoos by surveyors were in the adjacent Temporal Gulch, which surveyors traveled through to reach Mansfield Canyon. In Smith Canyon 3 of the 4 surveys conducted had positive cuckoo detections. Interestingly, this area was the only route in survey period one in 2017 that had a positive cuckoo detection.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Santa Rita Mountains in 2015 and 2017 in 7 routes with 6 breeding territories and 7 occupied territories documented.

Whetstone Mountains

Figure 10. Map of Whetstone Mountains showing locations and results of Yellow-billed Cuckoo surveys

The Whetstone Mountains were surveyed during the 2015 season and revisited in 2017 and 2018. During the 2015 surveys, both French Joe and Guindani canyons had occupied cuckoo territories with multiple detection occurrences, but the 3 other canyons surveyed had no cuckoo detections. Both French Joe and Guindani canyons were surveyed again in 2016 and no cuckoos were detected. In 2016 there were also no cuckoo detections in Middle or Dry Canyons, which were each surveyed once with an exploratory survey.  In 2018, both French Joe and Guindani canyons were surveyed with no cuckoo detections.

Overall, from 2015-2018 surveys were conducted in the Whetstone Mountains in 2015, 2016, and 2018 in 5routes with 2 occupied territories documented.


Tucson Audubon has concrete plans in 2019 to survey 4 routes in the Chiricahua Mountains, most likely in the southwest portion of the range as well as 3 routes in the Santa Catalina Mountains. We may also continue with our 2 primary routes in the Whetstone Mountains. It is possible that there will be more surveys in Madrean Sky Island Habitat in southeast Arizona in future years but this is not certain at this time.


Tucson Audubon thanks the Coronado National Forest for the opportunity to do these surveys. It has been a terrific partnership that we hope to continue into the future. With the help of our amazing volunteer base of over 100 active bird survey volunteers Tucson Audubon was able to demonstrate that the Coronado National Forest and southeastern Arizona Sky Islands in general are an important nesting habitat for this declining population. All of these results represent a staggering amount of field time and work, which could not have done without our volunteers that donated 2,568 hours to this project over the last 4 years. Thank you all so much!


Corman, T. E. 2005. Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In: Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, edited by T. Corman and C. Wise-Gervais, 2005. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque

Halterman, M.D., M.J. Johnson, J.A. Holmes, and S.A. Laymon. 2015. A Natural History Summary and Survey Protocol for the Western Distinct Population Segment of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Techniques and Methods, 45 p.

Hughes, Janice M. 2015. Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Federal Register Notice Vol. 79, No. 158 August 15, 2014:

Laymon, S. A. and M. D. Halterman. 1989. A proposed habitat management plan for Yellow-billed Cuckoos in California. USDA For. Serv. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW- no. 110:272-277.

Gaines, D. and S. A. Laymon. 1984. Decline, status, and preservation of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo in California. West. Birds no. 15:49-80

Fish, U.S. and Wildlife Service. 2013b. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants: threatened status for the western distinct population segment of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus); Proposed Rule. Federal Register no. 78 (192):61622-61666.

Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas, edited by T. Corman and C. Wise-Gervais, 2005. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque


Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120 Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447


Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447


Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120
Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447