August 18, 2013
I’ve lived on the farm all my life and I’ve seen many brown-headed cowbirds pecking bugs off the white-faced cattle. This is common place on the farm and it seems like an innocent enough laid-back coexistence and symbiotic reciprocity.
The next thought is that these cowbirds also have the unique habit of laying an egg in the nest of other songbirds and let the foster parent raise the young cowbird.
How confusing must this be to the young cowbird? How does it know who its parents are, how is it supposed to act, and when does it become a cowbird? How does she know to lay an egg in someone else’s nest?
These are all thoughts which I think provoke a lot of other thoughts.
Let’s look at the big picture going on in nature and man’s impact upon nature. The cowbird is perhaps adapting to and playing the hand we’ve dealt it.
As man interacts with nature, he can’t see to direct, control, or change it. We may call this forestry, agriculture, farming, development, etc., but it’s change in the great outdoors.
We didn’t mean to create more bluebird nesting when we used wood posts on farms, but we did. We don’t mean to eliminate bluebird nests when we use metal fence posts or turn the farm into a subdivision, but we do.
We have guided the Eastern Bluebird into a life style dependency and now we’ve decided to take care of him for the rest of his days (taken right out of the training manual for the welfare program.)
Now enter the brown-headed cowbird. Their life style goes hand-in-hand with cattle and the bugs they attract.
We have long viewed the cowbird as a lazy parent that purposely lays an egg in other person’s nest to let someone else raise their kid. Does this sound familiar? Let somebody else do it.
Recent studies have shown these birds motives to be far more deep-seated and calculated than just lazy. Let’s start with timing.
When the cowbird egg is laid it is ahead of the warbler, cardinal, etc., both in size and timing. It will hatch first, be bigger and dominate the other competition. It will eliminate the competition many times.
This is a big plus for the cowbird population, and a big problem for the surrounding songbird community. Studies have found that cowbirds impact 80 percent of the local songbird nests.
This even goes deeper and more sinister when you or the new parents remove the cowbird egg. You will find that the cowbird doesn’t just leave the egg and forget about it. They methodically return and check on things.
They want you to feed their kid, but they want to control things. Researchers have found that when they removed the cowbird egg or chick, the cowbirds return and destroy the other eggs and nest. This is the mafia urban decay approach or the “protection/terrorist” approach.
How do you combat this? First, you can downsize any nesting box entrance holes to not allow a cowbird in.
The biologists who conducted the research found that placing fake cowbird eggs in the songbird nests as they removed the real ones worked. The songbirds’ eggs hatched, the fake eggs didn’t and the cowbirds never caught on or retaliated.
This is most likely something that most of us don’t have the time or fake eggs to do, but when you stop and think about it, the cowbirds have a pretty sophisticated and devious plan to perpetuate their own and devastate the rest of the bird community.
Another approach to aiding the songbirds and hindering the cowbirds was found through reforestation. Yes, let’s hear it for the trees.
The cowbirds like pastures, cattle and agriculture. It has thrived on farmland while other songbirds prefer woodland nests.
The cowbird research clearly revealed the extent that they will go to to perpetuate their own. It showed their devious and methodical ways to survive. I think that we’ve known for quite a while that they laid eggs in the nests of others, but we didn’t know how they stayed in touch with their young.
Who’s at fault here? Is it the devious cowbird, or is it the pioneer, developer or farmer who have cleared and worked the land?
Maybe they’ve just adapted to our lifestyle and maybe they’re just doing what cowbirds do. I don’t think we should be too guilt-ridden by their habits because it seems this has been going on for some time.
Before the farms were here with cattle, cowbirds would have been called Buffalo Birds as they followed the wandering bison herds across the plains. Their excuse then was probably that they had time to make babies, but they just didn’t have time to settle down, make a nest, and raise their own.
Is it just me, or have some cowbird traits rubbed off on our society? I’m just sayin’.
Old world cuckoos were up to this same parasitic maneuver earlier, so cowbirds haven’t invented this system, but they have fine-tuned it. They now affect the nests and future populations of 200 species of songbirds.
This is much larger than I suspected and their manipulative ways follow up with more severity and impact that I suspected. These guys aren’t just pickin’ bugs off cattle. It goes a little deeper than that.
Dudley Wooten can be reached at 740-820-8210 or by visiting wootenslandscaping.com