It’s an unlikely title, I realize, for a girl born and raised during the Second Wave of feminism . . . in the hashish-a-plenty streets of Amsterdam . . . with an insomniac artist for a mom who developed algae foods for astronauts and read her babies chemistry homework as bedtime stories.
Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl about the time I was born, and I just have to thank Simone de Beauvoir, et al for providing a more soulful counterpoint to Brown’s advice on creating a sexy kitchen. Not that my kitchen isn’t sexy. Well, actually . . . it isn’t.
How any of this relates to these Brown-headed Cowbirds is a stretch. But then so are most of my analytical threads. When you’re photographing wildlife, you have a lot of time to follow your neurotransmitters through those synapses, creating convoluted connections of logic. So, as I was watching these cowbirds in my periphery, while photographing a colony of Cliff Swallows, it occurred to me that the little female here, pursued by two relentless males, probably had a trick or two up her wing for finding the most eligible man among them. That’s Gurley Brown all the way.
Cowbird Egg-Laying Behavior
Cowbirds, for all of the mayhem they create for other birds through parasitism, are fascinating for precisely that reason. Their ancestors lived primarily in the central plains, following herds of buffalo, feeding upon the insects, and retreating to forest edges to lay their eggs . . . in other birds’ nests. Some birds accept cowbird eggs and raise the young. Others promptly toss the eggs when they learn a cowbird’s been in the house.
According to Paul R. Ehrlich in an essay posted at the Stanford University site, “the Brown-headed Cowbird now has been recorded as successfully parasitizing 144 of 220 species in whose nests its eggs have been observed.” The birds who accept cowbird eggs are known as “hosts,” with warblers and vireos among the accepters. And they will raise the young cowbirds who hatch. I don’t have any photos of these small birds feeding those humongous cowbird babies, but tinyfishy at Flickr does. Check out the misfit that is the juvenile cowbird.
As is true with many ecological upsets, the cowbird’s spread beyond its original habitat of buffalo plains was facilitated by human intrusion. If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know that this is a consistent theme of mine when I discuss “problem” animals and non-native organisms. I feel it’s important to address and possibly even rectify the broader scope of the problem, rather than to simply demonize the animals who took advantage of an artificially created niche. And more often than not, human activity is at the root of environmental problems.
In the case of cowbirds, cutting into forests with logging roads, developing agricultural land where forests used to be, altering the landscape in broad, unnatural swaths, led to cowbirds parasitizing birds deeper into the forest — birds perhaps not as well-equipped to toss out those cowbird eggs, owing to their lack of historical experience with them.
For two interesting reads on these topics, I’ll direct you to Erlich’s cowbirds piece — and to a fact sheet on cowbirds from the Smithsonian National Zoo. Both pieces have details on the egg-laying behavior of the cowbirds, as well as some of the attendant ecological issues.
For the purposes of this post, I documented the advance/retreat routine of two male Brown-headed Cowbirds and a lone female. It’s a simple trajectory that ends in rejection. But the female’s escape was incremental, leading to a short photographic series.
Ken Erickson says
That is a really neat sequence. Great photography and observation. The sign adds a touch of irony. I have gotten nice shots of male and female cowbirds at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, BC (near Vancouver, Canada), but not the mating displays.
eugene beckes says
This is wonderful writing and photography, and I am appreciative! Thanks for posting.
We have lots of Brown Headed Cowbirds in the Mission Valley of Western Montana, where I live, and last year I saw a warbler feeding one of the outsized chicks. Amazing.
Eugene, thanks very much for the comment. I’d completely forgotten about this post until your note flew into my box. You have to admire Cowbird ingenuity, don’t you? (I realize that’s what makes them much maligned as well.) It’s a sight to witness those poor little birds feeding their behemoth of a baby? I’ve seen some spectacular photos of this, none of them mine. I’d love to capture that process on digital sometime.