It began like any normal pregame in the woods.
Naked, alone, hungover, a sweaty sleeping bag in the back of a dusty pickup truck, miles from civilization. Predawn in a narrow Utah river bottom, canyon country, early July 2018. A Thermos of lukewarm coffee. Last night’s empties scattered below the exhaust. I lie awake beneath ancient cottonwoods and the hulking black shadows of canyon walls, listening for bird song while running through the morning’s survey variables in my head. Immediately identifiable ones—ravens, magpies, hawks, black bears, skunks, quicksand—and harder to predict ones. Whether the temperatures will reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit before 11 a.m. Whether the down-canyon winds will exceed Category 4 (11-16 mph) on the Beaufort scale. How many cubic feet per second the river jumped overnight and how many decibels the increased current noise will affect acoustic detection probabilities. I’m thinking contingencies. What to do if conditions become unsuitable. Where to go if I can’t cross the river. How to get out alive, without cell service, if something goes wrong.
By 5:15 a.m., I’m rereading the protocol by headlamp. A Natural History Summary and Survey Protocol for the Western Distinct Population Segment of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I’m going over lookalikes and soundalikes, other birds that might, for a freak instant, steal my attention, dupe me into believing. Ash-throated flycatcher: similar shape, coloration; gray flanks, white breast; the crown, however, too pointed, bill too straight. Yellow-breasted chat: the rattle call loops into a circus-track of whistles, cackles, squawks. Great-blue heron nestling: deceptive clattering. Eurasian collared-dove, northern flicker, greater roadrunner.
I drop the tailgate and crawl out. There are no people in this river bottom, just cottonwoods, a winding dirt-sand road, and a faded Porta-John. Civil twilight (dawn, “first birding light”) starts at 5:52 a.m., the 30 minutes preceding sunrise when the center of the sun reaches 6 degrees below the horizon, indirectly illuminating the eastern skyline. Ornithologists revolve around this crepuscular window during the migratory bird nesting season. The chorus of birdsong gets louder by the minute. You start to see the ground beneath your feet. I take a piss in the sand, cue Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” on the iPhone playlist—a tribute to a colleague who died in a flash flood—and suit up. Double-fronted Carhartt’s for the brush. A light wicking T-shirt for the sweat. A collared pearl-snap button-up long-sleeve for the sun, a Write-in-the-Rain notepad in the front pocket, and a loaded mechanical pencil in the sleeve next to it. A fleece for mosquitoes. Crusty socks. Wet hiking boots. A vintage brown felt cowboy hat with a wide, flat brim. Extra handkerchiefs for the blood.
Cuckoo country is, indeed, on many counts, a place for no one of sound mind.
By 5:30 a.m., I’m counting down the minutes. I’m subtracting hike time, inhaling a four-day old burrito, bathing myself in citronella oil and garlic (no girlfriend this trip). I’m musing, as always, about the ridiculous odds of it all, the chances, or lack thereof, that I might actually detect the bird: Coccyzus (Co·size·us) americanus. The one sighting here, 10 years ago. That the species only responds to its call about 30 percent of the time and that less than 10 percent of these are visual confirmations (which doesn’t include the unknown percentage that fly in silent, watching from some crooked distance, undetected). That if you don’t schedule your four survey visits just right—one every 12 to 15 days between June 15 and August 15—you might miss the bird entirely, the long slender body, bright white breast, curved yellow bill, long black-and-white spotted tail. That it is one of the latest migrants to arrive in the Lower 48—late May to June—and one of the fastest to breed. One day to seduce. Ten to incubate. Six to feed, feather, and fledge. Seventeen total days, start to finish, before mom could simply hop a cheap redeye to South America. Another snowbird winter in the tropics. No alimony. No child support.
By 5:40 a.m., I’m triple-proofing equipment and supplies. GPS. Stopwatch. Binoculars. Camera. Speakers. Batteries. Knife. A Ziploc with Ibuprofen, superglue, and a snakebite kit. Reflective tape for route-finding in the dark; a multi-tool; an extra GPS. A hiking pole. Mystery burrito number two from the cooler: cold to the touch, bloated with water, wrapped in tinfoil. Protein bars. An Otterbox for the wallet.
By the time I set out for my first call station, I’m finally dialed in. Sensitive to every detail, every skulking towhee scratching at a pile of leaves, every subtle soundwave shift in the nearby eddy, every set of bear prints punched into the sand bar or unkindness of ravens perched in wait. Thrift-store cowboy biologist outfit, check. Atmospheric hat, check. Poker face, you bet. Neck pivoting. Eyes swooping back and forth. Ears on alert. My brain some kind of animalistic Doppler radar fueled by amphetamines, frantically scanning the terrain every two seconds for all things wild, internally mapping shapes, sizes, sounds, determining velocities, distances, frequencies, trajectories. Rescanning. A streak of rust-red underwing. A flash of white breast. A sharp knock or series of coos echoing through the understory. An unending search for a split-second glimpse of hope. I clip the knife onto the belt, pull down the brim of the hat, and start bushwhacking.
On Oct. 23, 1929, in Johnson City, Tennessee, hours before the stock market crash on Wall Street, Clarence Ashley recorded the first popularized version of “The Coo Coo Bird” in the United States. He learned the song from his mother and played it throughout his teens, eventually incorporating it into his medicine show repertoire of Appalachian folk songs, murder ballads, blackface comedy, and folk blues numbers such as “Dark Holler,” “Haunted Road Blues,” and “Rising Sun Blues” (the latter a precursor to “House of the Rising Sun”). Ashley’s clawhammer is furious from the start, freight-training forward in sawmill tuning. He then bleats out the first verse and chorus in a high-pitched warble: Gonna build me / a log cabin / on a mountain / so high / so I can / see Willie / as he goes / on by // Oh the Coo Coo / is a pretty bird / she wobbles / as she flies / She never / hollers Coo Coo / till the fourth day / July. It became Ashley’s frontrunner—his trademark, a perennial set-opener, a non-linear, non-narrative series of floating stanzas—because it was, as he described it, “sound to suit.” “I set this old bird a-flyin’ back in the ’20s,” he told an audience at the Chicago Folk Festival in 1962. “And she’s been flyin’ around the country ever since.”
In his book The Old, Weird America, author and critic Greil Marcus observes that Ashley’s recording of “The Coo Coo Bird” sounds less like a yoking of random, floating folk-lyric fragments and more like an intentional, thematic unveiling of “displacement, restlessness, homelessness, the comic worry of ‘a people’ as Constance Rourke wrote of Americans, ‘unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.’ ” To compare the song to the state of the union is not anything new or occult, after all. The symbolism of the cuckoo—of infidelity and inconstant love, trouble on the horizon—has been flying around the darker reaches of our country’s conscience for a century and a half. “We Americans are all cuckoos,” Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1872, shortly after the Civil War. “We make our homes in the nests of other birds.”
People park unused vehicles down here, skeletons of old vans and disassembled ambulances, beat-up Chevy flatbeds with their mouths propped open, no engines inside. Stained mattresses. Rusty box springs. Saw-toothed stumps. Rotting firewood. Tarps suspended between alders. Moldy sleeping bags. Things are always scattered and impermanent here in the floodplains of the western U.S. Piles of empty beer cans, spent shotgun shells, invasive weeds, raccoon tracks. Used syringes. Broken appliances. Meth trailers. Abandoned gravel pits decaying into shallow, open-face graves. Char, ash, the blackened circular remain of a decomposing fire ring, evidence destroyed. Swollen cows before the fall sale, topping off on fields of timothy and redtop. Homeless. Once I stumbled onto a worn pile of women’s clothing with a wig on top, as if the lady simply vanished straight down out of her—or his—costume. Stuff can appear or disappear suddenly like this in cuckoo habitat—the wild bottomlands of the American West—survive for some weird unknown current of time and then drift away in a senseless, random instant. As Annie Dillard once put it, “Nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair.”
In 2016, a homeless man hammered another homeless man to death in cuckoo habitat. Sprawling encampments along river corridors can house such violence of the first degree from time to time. I conducted a formal protocol survey in the area, not far from where I live, a summer before the crime. One of my call stations landed directly in front of a tent, a door half-zipped, as I stood there listening for the full seven required minutes, for what felt eternal, distracted, damn near paranoid, by who or what could have been. The following September, the day after the homicide, a colleague accidentally stumbled into the ring of yellow caution tape, unaware of what had happened the night before. Where were the other homeless when it went down, you wonder? Were they listening? Watching? Or running for their lives? It’s hard not to suspect killings of this nature motivating local task forces to criminalize the homeless, the vast lot of transients probably simply longing for a safer and more permanent place to call home. I’ve seen numerous encampments vanish over the years in cuckoo habitat—Operation Fill-in-the-Blank, SWAT team raids, police dogs—only to eventually resurface in some similar nearby setting. In river valleys west of the hundredth meridian, this kind of relocation is commonplace. Riparian woodlands offer shelter for months and then, on a dime, turn silent overnight.
I arrive at my first call station at 5:50 a.m., two minutes before the start of twilight. Already there’s a pair of yellow-breasted chats at 75 meters discussing their breakfast plans, a perky yellow warbler at 25, five spotted towhees at varying distances, and a gray catbird in the skunkbush next to me. All usual suspects. It is low-light conditions but nothing my binoculars can’t handle, so I drop my pack and retrieve the handheld caller. The yellow-billed cuckoo employs two primary vocalizations: the contact and the coo. The contact is an eight or so second series of hollow, rapid-fire kuk’s immediately followed by a descending sequence of sharp, staccato kowlp’s. The coo, meanwhile, is an extended, dove-like succession of five to eight coos, the last one to three sunk in a lower pitch. The volume’s set to 70 decibels, per protocol, so I start playing the 7-minute MP3, speakers aimed outward. One minute of silence, eight seconds kowlp. One minute of silence, eight seconds kowlp.
My second call station lies to the west 100 meters, a spread proven most effective for eliciting cuckoo response. Bushwhacking the rough length of a football field through a dark thorny corridor can, depending on understory density, require up to five minutes or more, a straight-line distance really doubled to snake past all the obstacles, and theoretically tripled if you add the number of expletives dropped in between. A full morning of surveys, from first birding light to 11 a.m, the cutoff, averages 25 stations, 0.5 miles, 125 kowlps. Add it up: 8 seconds/kowlp x 125 kowlps/survey x 4 surveys/seas kowlp-seconds/season. Two miles of surveying = 16,000 kowlp-seconds per season. “Its cry was reviled through the centuries as oppressive,” Greil Marcus wrote, “repetitious, maniacally boring, a call to drive you crazy, a call that was already crazy, befitting a bird that was insane.”
Cuckoo country is, indeed, on many counts, a place for no one of sound mind. The bird’s call behavior is stupidly erratic, unpredictable, untraceable, dislocated from the moment, as virtually all variables related to its vocalizations keep experts guessing. What time of morning does a cuckoo prefer to call? How many times per day does it call? Does it call more before a storm—earning its name Rain Crow—as lore would have it? None of these basic questions, though, yield defensible answers. The little that’s known is that a cuckoo will kowlp to another as a basic form of contact, a recognition at least of location. Also that, if threatened, a cuckoo will fire off a knock call, a rapid series of kuks without the kowlps, as if knocking on a hollow door—a warning that you’re too close to a nest. And just recently, thanks to several researchers in Arizona, we know that the only cuckoo that coos—a lonely, mournful call heard almost exclusively during the early stages of the breeding season—is an estrogen-crazed female, mated or unmated.
Things, of course, get weirder and more complicated when the bird begins to nest. Yellow-billed cuckoos can, during the mating season, exhibit monogamy, serial polyandry (one female and several males, which occurs in less than 1 percent of all bird species), polygyny (one male and multiple females), cooperative breeding, deferred breeding, and/or double breeding. An adult female can, depending on her mood, drop one of her turquoise eggs into another species’ nest. She might also, though rarely, remove one of the host bird’s eggs before returning home. A male cuckoo, meanwhile, may forego pursuit of offspring to assist another statesman in his. Or a different male could tend to a nest jointly with two or three other adults. There are endless variations on the theme, many of which result from the fact that the yellow-billed cuckoo is the only facultative interspecific brood parasite in North America. Facultative adj.: Taking place in some conditions but not others. Capable of, but not restricted to, a particular function or mode of life. Occurring optionally in response to circumstances rather than by nature.
Greil Marcus: “It is a kind of scavenger in reverse: violating the natural order of things, it is by its own nature an outsider, a creature that cannot belong. Depositing its orphans, leaving its progeny to be raised by others, to grow up as imposters in another’s house—as America filled itself up with slaves, indentured servants, convicts, hustlers, adventurers, the ambitious and the greedy, the fleeing and the hated, who took or were given new, imposters’ names—the cuckoo becomes the other and sees all other creatures as other.”
In 1910, the government estimated over 15,000 pairs of cuckoos in California. In 2014, that number dropped to 40, and in Colorado, where I live, only five. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the cuckoo west of the Continental Divide (not be confused with its more-common eastern counterpart) a Distinct Population Segment, or DPS, listing it as federally threatened: in danger of becoming endangered. The Service requires any biologist wanting to survey for the western DPS to apply for and obtain a permit, a process which involves attending a two-day protocol workshop (hosted by yours truly), passing a written exam, and completing 12 total hours of supervised surveys with a permitted cuckoo biologist. It so happens that the Endangered Species Act—the law protecting the bird—defines surveys for listed-species presence (basic inventories designed to better understand a species’ status and distribution) as a form of harassment. Artificial calling can alter the bird’s breeding behavior, thus jeopardizing its nest success. No permit, no survey, in other words. Which is no doubt one of the silliest ironies at play: that one must become certified to look for the certified.
6:25 a.m. Call station three. I’m inching through the thicket, trying to find a rhythm, slowly snaking my way forward with 6-foot coyote willow whips and spring-loaded Russian olive branches lashing at my face. You get used to the punishment. The unforgiving shrubs, the uneven terrain, the dozens of mosquitoes operating in the upside-down of the hat crown. I hear the rapid drumming of a hairy woodpecker at 30 yards, a McGillivray’s warbler at 50, two lone flickers posturing between cottonwoods, bouncing from trunk to trunk in a slow-motion game of pong, curiously triangulating my kowlping, plus boatloads of chats, towhees, yellow warblers, and a fly-by immature red-tailed hawk. My fleece, meanwhile, has quickly turned into some kind of interactive museum exhibit, a sweaty, uncurated mess of smeared willow catkins, cobwebs, collet hairs, mysterious sap, and a checkerboard of deer flies and mosquitoes pinned into place. The sun’s climbed the top of the canyon wall, penetrating the dense riparian overstory, casting long, narrow shadows across the forest floor. To my left, sheets of smoke drift over the river’s surface like still-waves spilling out of a fog machine.
In 2017, I was approached by two white guys with dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes. They pulled up fast—county road, public right-of-way, dead-end—and parked in front of me on a diagonal, blocking my exit. “What are you doing here?” they asked, lurching forward. The habitat was survey-worthy, but fortunately for me, also in easement, one through sheer luck that I monitor every year to ensure environmental compliance. My cover was perfect. “I’m checking the easement down on your neighbors’ place,” I said, inwardly grinning. “A quick annual deal along the river.” The guys might have been too stoned to say anything or thought, perhaps out of sympathy, that my poor man’s Ghillie suit didn’t warrant further interrogation. I couldn’t tell for sure, but they retreated either way. Two growers with their season’s cash crop close at hand, attempting to ward me off: a clean shave, tucked shirt, fumbling with a GPS and camera on the tailgate. An outsider. El narco.
The cuckoo resists conclusion. Defies location. Belies time. Solitary: social. Curious: careless. Monogamous: parasitic. Domestic: nomadic. Loosely territorial.
Seizures and busts are not uncommon down here. Last winter, two hours from my house, a state trooper arrested a man along Interstate 70 trying to access a small uninhabitable island in the Colorado River. The man allegedly possessed certain seeds in his pockets. When the trooper returned later with a spotting scope, he noticed piles of gear and equipment that didn’t belong on the island. DEA agents and local police task forces triangulated the operation all spring and summer, until finally, one September morning nearing harvest, they assembled. Choppers. Probably those old midnight blue pontoons, the ones with half-roofs and yellow block lettering, flanking the island upriver and down. Two Sinaloan men were caught that day: Santos Ramirez-Alvarez and Santos Ramirez-Carrello. No relation.
Agents reportedly seized 9,200 plants, all likely severed at the base of the stalk with the swoop of a machete before being loaded in industrial nets hanging from helicopters. Plants likely heliported upriver into some secret government pile and left to decompose, unrecoverable. The two Sinaloa men were believed to have ties to a larger Mexican cartel. “The idea that legalization has taken a burden off law enforcement couldn’t be further from the truth,” one of the lead officers involved in the raid told the local newspaper the next day. When pressed about specifics, the agent mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that there was a third Sinaloan man on the island who got away. He escaped, the agent said, because of the “thick terrain.” “Wonderful and admirable as most instincts are,” Charles Darwin wrote in Origin of Species, “they cannot be considered absolutely perfect: there is a constant struggle going on throughout nature between the instinct of the one to escape its enemy and of the other to secure its prey.”
10:25 a.m. The sun’s cooking now. Heat waves forming. Bird song diminishing. I’m dehydrated, ravenous, powering through. At roughly 500 cubic feet per second, I wade into the river, probing my feet across the mud-cobble bottom, testing each step for sinkholes, formations in the river floor that can suck you down, swallow a boot, or pole, or worse. The 12 call stations on the other side, spread across three different landownership parcels, introduce the dilemma of trespass, the perennial issue of species permeability, the constant gray area surrounding the places we call our own. Political and geographic bounds rarely affect a bird’s habits and movements, that is, but almost always straightjacket the surveyors attempting to delineate that bird’s whereabouts. Barbed-wire fences, river edges, border walls, all meant to convey legal boundaries often end up misstrung, misaligned, or missing entire sections altogether.
I was reminded of this one survey morning while seeking landowner permissions. A local public works department was proposing a cross-town water pipeline, a narrow linear corridor engineered to run through miles of native riparian woodland, and that crossed, at one bottleneck, a small clearing with a single-wide trailer in the middle. It was overcast, humid, and I was wasting no time climbing the trailer’s porch steps when I saw it perched there, a sawed-off shotgun leaning against the doorframe, barrel up, three feet down and to my right. The screen and front doors were braced open at the hinges, frozen wide in opposite directions like jaws pried open by some invisible force. I couldn’t help but stop for a minute in front of the strange portal, momentarily suspended in place and time, thinking how conflicted it was, how one could communicate, so simultaneously, get the hell out and come on in. When a man finally shuffled across the vinyl floorboards into the light, I began to see things in greater detail. The cane, the yellow leaf insignias on his sweat-stained NRA hat, the black scabs on his forehead, the Duck Dynasty beard.
He was a Vietnam vet, traumatized, disgruntled, preserving his family’s property. Me, a private biologist hired by the city to carry out the city’s federal requirements for a bird that connotes crazy. Neither of us were dealt a great hand, but we stood there on his porch all the richer—his gray schnauzer sniffing at my pant legs, the shotgun to our right—the two of us swapping hunting stories, each minute becoming friendlier than the next. Before I knew it, and for whatever reason—some illogical response to fight or flight or maybe a half-hearted attempt to care for one’s home or territory, I still can’t say for sure—he offered me full fence-to-fence access to his land. The same, it turned out, could never be said for the city, whose constant attempts at negotiation, despite the increasing check amount, fell short of the fact that the proposed pipeline ran, of all places and alignments, length-wise beneath his single-wide. The project was, and remains, the last I checked, postponed indefinitely, the two sides stale-mated, left in dis-resolve, struck down by the unpredictable instinct to defend against some outside dangers and not others, even when those dangers are inverse functions of one another, related but not necessarily relatable.
This, at the end of the day, is what underlies the unsettling nature of the cuckoo. The bird resists conclusion. Defies location. Belies time. Solitary: social. Curious: careless. Monogamous: parasitic. Domestic: nomadic. Loosely territorial. The contradictions and complexities are constant—an infinite string of floating stanzas, stations, songs, sightings. Wordsworth’s “two-fold shout.” Milton’s “rude bird of hate.” Shakespeare’s “skipping king.” Plutarch’s “future sparrow hawk.” Storm king. Rain crow. The boundaries of the bird’s behavior can be disturbingly and oftentimes dangerously shifty, especially for those surveying for the species, data drones like me who, through the gravity of the protocol, become the other and see all creatures as other.
I must confess a strange addiction to the pursuit, to the sport of constant sorrow, of disappearing into the subterranean, a bottomlands sleuth for a sad song, the game day routine a series of steps and seconds often leading to fool’s errands, near-misses, gambles, each season becoming more deeply buried by the mad and macabre. The dark math of six hours a day times 16 days times 16,000 kowlps. The fear that I’ll walk off into the sunset with empty data which will become a report of no findings which will produce the paycheck in order to buy the beer to do it all again. I’m not sure if there’s anything more timeless than this, really, of being swept up by the repetition of the thrill of the chase, searching through the shifting light for the wild and unknowable.
If Ashley’s historic set-opener serves any parallel, it’s that the reappearance of this birdsong on our country’s folk-revival landscape can also be ill-natured and never-ending. The first verse alone says volumes. “It sounds like a children’s ditty,” Greil Marcus wrote, “only until you realize the verse is made to refuse any of the questions it makes you ask.” Gonna build me / a log cabin / on a mountain / so high / so I can / see Willie / as he goes / on by. “Who is Willie? Why does the singer want to watch him? Why must he put aside his life and embark on a grand endeavor just to accomplish this ordinary act? The verse can communicate only as a secret everybody knows or as an allusion to a body of knowledge the singer knows can never be recovered.”
Even Ashley’s voice embodies the parable, leading us to believe, we might deduce, that the singer is never as old as the song, the way an MP3 call is never as wild as the real. Oh the Coo Coo / is a pretty bird / she wobbles / as she flies / She never / hollers Coo Coo / till the fourth day / July. “It sounds as if he’s 17 or 117,” Marcus observed. “There is a willful irascibility in his voice, a disdain for the consequences of any action the singer might take, or not take. The banjo could be from another song or another world. The music seems to have been found in the middle of some greater song; it is inexorable. The opening and closing flourishes on the banjo seem false, because the figures in the music make no progress, go from no one place to any other; the sound was here before the singer started and it will be here when he’s gone.”
In 2017, American musician Willie Watson recorded “The Cuckoo Bird” on his album, Folk Singer Vol. 2. His clawhammer banjo hits clear and commanding. His high lonesome hollow and haunting. The version bears eerie resemblance to Ashley’s nearly a century ago; Watson even honored the same stanzas, an almost puritanical translation. Seventeen or 117, the Willie of new embracing the Willie of old. I’ve played cards in England / I’ve gambled in Spain / I’ll bet you / ten dollars / I’ll beat you next game // Jack of Diamonds / Jack of Diamonds / I know you / from old / You rob my / poor pockets / of silver and gold. Rolling Stone nominated Vol. 1 as one of 26 albums “You Probably Didn’t, But Really Should Hear.” “Watson’s voice carries the weight of generations past,” they note, “but it’s still appropriate for the one we live in right now.”
7 p.m. I’m reentering cuckoo habitat—windows down, bluegrass on the radio—carrying out the necessary reconnaissance for tomorrow morning’s survey. Scouting game trails, ground-truthing call stations, sizing up the river crossing, starting a species list. The place has the features I teach beginning surveyors to look for: a wild, undulating river, cartoon-sized cottonwoods, Russian olive, willow bars, tent caterpillars. A citizen scientist detected C. americanus here 10 years ago, incidentally, the only confirmed report ever in the area. Despite the bird calling randomly then, I’m here to follow up, as I have every summer, to investigate the scene. I’m approaching the edge of the woods, cruising at 5 mph—the sun slowly sinking on the western horizon—when I suddenly see something—the shadow of a figure ahead in the distance—creeping toward me.
At first glance, I’m betting yeti. Perhaps some kind of Native American apparition. A curandero, maybe, shamanic spirit, witch doctor, the ghost of an Ute Mountain Indian, cradling a recurve hunting bow in the palm of his hand. As I close in—300 meters, 200, 100—I’m thinking about how many mornings I’ve surveyed this habitat patch, the number of overnights in the back of my pickup, never encountering a soul. We’re now surrounded by towering, century-old cottonwoods, with red canyon walls rising up to our sides, closing off our exits, the nearest pavement over 50 minutes away. That’s when I notice, for the first time, at the edge of the thick terrain, a polished white RV with parking blocks wedged beneath its wheels. Out front lie an identical pair of salty, reclining sun chairs, a putting green, and a large cook grill. It looks like a showcase showdown from The Price is Right—sand beach, desert backdrop—glistening like a brontosaurus-sized jewel in the heatwaves.
That’s when it finally comes into view—the shadow figure—now as clear as all day: an old potbellied man, bare-assed, approaching my truck. I stop cold in my tracks and reach for my knife. There’s something primitive about the man. His face corrugated like ancient bark, the crow’s feet peeling away at the cracked corners of his reddened eyes, the distended orb of his stomach, swollen like a rigormortised cow. He’s like some cross between a retired Mexican vaquero and Bob Barker’s washed-up step-cousin.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen in days,” he says, grinning, revealing dentures.
“Have you seen my dog?” he asks quickly, a heavy Texas drawl. “It’s a white shiatzu. I’ve been looking for him for an hour.”
“No, sir, I haven’t,” I reply, one hand gripped to my side. He slaps at a deer fly and pins it dead to his forearm.
“I hope a cougar didn’t eat it,” he says, grinning again.
The man’s standing next to my driver’s side window, red-skinned and droop-breasted, buck naked except for a pair of worn handmade leather flip-flops and some kind of leopard-print banana hammock thingy dangling over his you-know-what. Was he serious? Did he really lose his dog? And where was the man’s wife just then? The one he sunned and putted and barbecued with. Was she looking for their dog too? Was she doing laps in the woods like the two of us, searching for the unexpected?
It was impossible not to think of the western yellow-billed cuckoo in that moment. About the bird that flashes in front of you when you least expect it. The bird that calls when trouble’s brewing on the horizon. The bird dying in the west but surviving in our imaginations. The bird that transcends place and time. That never hollers coo-coo until the fourth day of July. Strange to the land. In danger of becoming endangered.
“I’ll keep my eye out,” I say, dropping the clutch into reverse.
“But no guarantees.”
Adam Petry is a writer, biologist, and fiddler. He lives in western Colorado where he hosts the state’s yellow-billed cuckoo survey protocol training workshop.