Dark, Greedy Beggar

"Cowbird, a thorougly contemptible creature, lacking in every moral and maternal instinct"

quoted from (Bird-life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds By Frank Michler Chapman, Ernest)

Uh oh, Bay Village birds. A gang of Cowbirds has rustled into your neighborhood. I spotted 4 of these male thugs yesterday evening. So, you Sparrows and Warblers- hide your nests- hide them well.

It isn't a stretch to refer to the Cowbirds as thugs. (Although, they do have their good points- such as eating large number of harmful insects and they are also known for picking insects and parasites off of cows- which is how they received their name.) However, these birds are infamous for their bad behavior. Very bad behavior. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and then leave the egg to be raised by the host bird. Unfortunately, as the Cowbird is a large bird- and they tend to lay their egg in the nests of smaller bird species such as sparrows and warblers- as the young Cowbird grows- it demands more and more food. As a result- the other birds in the nests typically starve or are pushed out of the nest by the larger Cowbird. A thug indeed.
And the Cowbird is secretive. In the Spring- when it is time to lay her eggs- the female Cowbird will search through the trees and shrubs for a nest in which to lay an egg. Once finding a suitable nest- she will wait until both the male and female owners of the nest are away from the nest- at which point she will fly in and deposit her egg. In effect- she is turning the owners of the nest into foster parents for her own offspring. Bizarre behavior indeed. And destructive. It is said that for every Cowbird raised- a brood of songbirds or insect eating birds has been sacrificed. (source) And it can be worse. . . although a female Cowbird will only lay one egg per nest- the presence of a Cowbird egg doesn't prohibit other female Cowbird's from laying their own egg in the same nest! Some nests have been found with 4 Cowbird eggs. (source) Jayne, a fellow blogger has posted a picture of a Cowbird chick in a Chipping Sparrow's nest. It is a jarring site: http://journeythroughgrace.blogspot.com/2008/05/chip-chip-moo.html

Still not convinced of the evils of the Cowbird? Think about what was written earlier: entire broods of songbirds can be lost because of the 1 Cowbird egg and resulting care of the nestling. Consider this- a female Cowbird can lay up to 40 eggs per season. (source) If entire broods of songbirds are lost as a result of each egg- and suppose that there are 3 eggs per songbird brood- then there potentially could be a loss of at least 120 songbirds for each egg laying female Cowbird per season.

Surely such a contemptible bird has a beautiful song- some redeeming quality? Well- the Cowbird's song isn't one of its redeeming qualities. It doesn't even have a song. But, it does have a call that sounds like gluck, zee-zee. Its call is even criticized by researchers studying this bird. One researcher described the Cowbird's call as a "guttural murmurring" which is produced with "nauseous effect." (source) To hear the call of the Brown-Headed Cowbird- click here. (Personally, I like the sound of the Cowbird's call. It sort of sounds like a Red-Winged Blackbird's call.)

So- what to do about the Cowbird? The Audobon Society along with scientists from many universities have been studying the Cowbird's effect on songbirds. Although there isn't a consensus- many scientists do not believe that the Cowbird is as big a problem to song birds as are environmental concerns. In addition, the Cowbird population has also been declining for the past 3 decades- at a rate of about 1.1% a year. (source)

Scientists also are finding the Cowbird useful in their studies- even synthetic estrogen studies. (source). So, when looking for the good and purpose for every creature- perhaps the reviled Cowbird has something good in store for us.

The scientific name for the Cowbird is Molothrus ater. The meaning of its Latin name? Dark, greedy beggar (source) How appropriate.


Carolyn Hietala said...

I had to opportunity to rescue a cowbird fledgling many years ago. It couldn't be released so became a family member. It would sit on my shoulder when out of its cage and stayed as I did housework or whatever. You couldn't turn the water on in the sink without the nosy critter jumping right in. Yes they wreak havoc stealing eggs in the "real" world but this one stole my heart ;0) She was loved to the end of her days!

Daniel Spurgeon said...

Hi Carolyn, thanks for the feedback regarding the Brown-headed Cowbird. Unfortunately, you are probably inadvertently encouraging my son to try and catch one and make a pet out of it! :) Crows, Mynas (sp?) and other birds have in the past (and present) have made good pets- so I'm not surprised that the Cowbird was such a dear pet to you! :)

Thanks again for sharing your story- that's really neat.

Anonymous said...

I raised an abandoned cowbird too. He appeared to have been kicked out of his nest and had no feathers. As no wildlife rehab wanted a cowbird, I raised him and named him Binky. Binky comes when I call him, sleeps on the back of my pillow, takes a shower with me and absolutely adores my special needs rabbit. He is so protective of my ranjit that hem will not allow anyone but me near her and hem will sit in her pen with her or sit on her too. When my rabbit isout of her pen because I am clean it, Binky never leaves her side. He has been a great to my rabbit, who cannot have a rabbit companion because of her special needs. Binky's intelligence and loyalty have taught me to respect the cowbird!