What should one call the Cowbird?
Suggested alternate names include Lazy Bird, Cuckold, Cow-pen Bird, Buffalo Bird or the Brown-headed Oriole.
I know of no one else able to make reading long articles on birds such a fascinating pastime so permit me on this occasion to jump right into the article in “Birds of America ,” edited by T. Gilbert Pearson:
“The Cowbird is that interesting phenomenon in nature called a parasite. Like the European cuckoo it leaves all family care to others. It might well serve as the emblem of free love. Many changes have been rung on the fidelity of birds to their mates, on the mating of certain birds for life and the sanctity of such union, but the Cowbird is an exception to all rules of virtue and monogamy among birds. The relations of the sexes are free and untrammeled. Both male and female confer their favors more or less generally and there seems to be practically no jealousy or quarreling. In their wooing, the males swell and bristle something after the manner of a Sage Cock, bowing and sputtering in their attempts to make themselves agreeable. The wings and tail are spread and the birds almost go into convulsions in their efforts to sing but produce nothing more than a rather unmusical chuck see. The females receive them all with generous impartiality. The offspring of these brief and happy unions are not nourished and cared for by the community, but are foisted on foster-mothers of other species, while the happy, carefree Cowbirds, with love and song, enjoy the long summer days.
… “When the female Cowbird finds the duties of motherhood imminent she hunts stealthily through woods, bosky dells, shade trees or orchards until she discovers some smaller bird’s nest containing one or more fresh eggs. If the owner of the nest is engaged in laying an egg, the Cowbird waits if possible until her victim has left the nest and then, slipping in, deposits her own egg.
Occasionally, the “victims sometimes desert the nest, but this seems a rare occurrence. Usually they incubate and hatch the interloper. The birds chosen as foster-parents frequently are much smaller than the Cowbird, and as the Cowbird’s egg is commonly larger than their own, it receives more warmth. for this reason and because it receives a shorter period of incubation it hatches earlier.”
Oh, how I wish I could write like that!
But back to the cowbird. Getting that advantageous head start, it soon monopolizes the nest, frequently causing the rightful birds to die. It’s often been known to puncture any remaining eggs as well. Once grown and able to leave the nest, this bird may well tag after its foster parents, begging for yet even more food. Finally mature, it will seek out other cowbirds.
Audubon tells us there is also a Bronzed Cowbird but that is only found in the very southwest, generally along the Mexican border and on southward. Ours, to be perfectly correct, is the Brown-headed Cowbird. They are common around here and frequently found in the company of red-wings, starlings and grackles. The male is colored in such ways that probably no one would confuse it with any other bird for he has a medium-brown head with a definite black body about six-and-a-half inches in length. His mate, as so often happens, is a quite nondescript brownish gray, “mouse-gray” one book calls it. Its beak is smaller and more closely resembles that of a sparrow or finch.
It is interesting to note that, when in the mixed company of birds, it sticks its tail straight up when feeding on the ground. It will also come to window feeders as my photographs attest.
I don’t admire its habits but do like that it is one of the easiest for me to recognize. Only then Peterson adds his own little twist: “Young males in late summer molt, may be bizarrely patterned with tan and black.”
Let’s keep our eyes open for that!
Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.