“I love the cuckoo,” wrote Gene Stratton-Porter in her book Friends in Feathers. The yellow-billed cuckoo is a secretive bird of the woods. It is not an easy bird to see let alone to find a nest. Gene’s friend Jacob Studer called the bird a “slipper” because it slips into the underbrush so easily.
Two of her best cuckoo nests were on the Hale farm, just outside of Geneva. Will Hale, who worked for the Bank of Geneva, showed Gene a cuckoo nest on the same day he led her to where the kingfisher was nesting. Bob Black found several nests around Geneva. Gene discovered that the cuckoo will use abandoned old nests of other birds, such as a robin or a green heron. She made a study of the habits of this bird.
Of all the young birds Gene photographed, the cuckoo was her favorite. She loved their “trusting, tender, and gentle” disposition.
For all her success over a five year period of photographing the nests and young cuckoos, Gene was frustrated in that she had not been able to photograph an adult cuckoo. This is primarily due to the fact that they perch in thick foliage. This changed in June 1906. Bob Black came to Gene and said that he had found a nest on the Aspy farm and that it was a short distance off the ground, not twelve feet. It was also situated where Gene could place the camera on a tripod and have a clear photograph of the mother bird on the nest.
She lost sleep over the excitement and “nervous strain” of thinking about photographing an adult cuckoo. She was ready for a new adventure.
When she saw the cuckoo, Gene noted that it was the black-billed cuckoo, not the yellow-billed which is more common. She photographed the mother on the nest for the next few days. She patiently moved a little closer to the nest each day. Eventually she was able to get to within ten feet of the nest.
Gene was a gifted naturalist, photographer, illustrator and writer. We are lucky that she called this part of Indiana home. Her nature studies and photographs are still amazing accomplishments over 100 years later.
Gene would be pleased to know that over one-hundred years later, the cuckoo still nests around Geneva. With wetland restoration, especially along the Wabash River watershed, it is the perfect habitat for this bird.
Limberlost is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Friends in Feathers. This is the last book of Gene’s that is entirely about the birds of Limberlost. The Friends of the Limberlost gift shop carries the book Friends in Feathers. One chapter is on the cuckoo. This book has stood the test of time in regards to Gene’s bird studies.