Meet: Cowbirds

Really, we should have known this wouldn’t be easy. As I wrote last week, a sparrow has made a nest and laid her eggs in our hanging planter. I’m rooting for these eggs to survive, as we’ve (the eggs, that is) had a three-year bad luck spell.

Luckily, I thoroughly enjoy learning about the animal kingdom because I now know more about cowbirds than any of you. That will soon change. (Bear with me — there’s a question I’d like to pose to you at the end. It’s an interesting one, I think.)

Speckled cowbird egg among the sparrow eggs

Speckled cowbird egg among the sparrow eggs

It seems a cowbird has laid an egg in the sparrow nest. This is bad because cowbirds hatch sooner and they are bigger. The bigger hatchling will most likely gobble up any food the sparrow brings back for her own brood, thus causing most or all of the other hatchlings to starve. And sometimes cowbird hatchlings push the others out of the nest. The prevalence of cowbirds has probably contributed to the decline of some songbirds (among many other factors, like our own prevalence).

Cowbirds are called brood parasitic because the mama bird will do this–lay her egg(s) in another’s nest and then that foster parent has to do all the hard work. In the past, this cowbird behavior has been attributed to everything from laziness to genius. I read several opinions that I should snatch the egg, shake it, and be done with it; I was even given this opinion by a wildlife biologist.

Not so fast. It used to be thought that the mama cowbird lays her egg and moves on. But a groundbreaking study found that some mama cowbirds watch the nest to make sure the foster parent is doing a good job. If her egg is removed, the mama cowbird will return and destroy the rest of the eggs. She will retaliate. These cowbirds mean business.

Add to your newfound knowledge the fact that cowbirds are a native species and are thereby protected by law. I’d technically be breaking the law if I shook that egg–though, from my brief research, it seems everyone does it.

I’ve always said I could never be a National Geographic photographer because I couldn’t just stand by and watch a lion stalk a baby elephant. I would have to save the elephant. But the lion cubs need to eat, too, and I agree with the principle that when possible, we should not mess with nature.

So–nature or nurture? I’ve pretty much made up my mind. What would you do?

P.S. I didn’t even tell you half of what I now know about cowbirds.


13 thoughts on “Meet: Cowbirds

  1. I’ve told you what my bird people think but understand your struggle!! She is still very adamant about you taking that egg out! I hope it all turns out! She reposted your video to share with all of her bird friends too. This little nest is causing quite a stir!

  2. Wow Jess how interesting. Never heard about a cowbird before I read your blog. I guess I would let nature take its course….am a Darwin fan and believe in survival of the fittest. Perhaps some if the little ones will survive and be the stronger for it. Good job.

  3. This is beyond survival of the fittest. Man has interfered with the natural range of the cowbird and encouraged its growth through altering the terrain and increasing fragmented areas and desired nesting areas. Because they have breached their natural range, they are already responsible for the decline of other songbirds as the video says. Songbrids have so many other things to compete with to survive – pet cats are a resonsible for MAJOR losses in songbird populations as well as ferile cats, people, (children) cars, windows, competition from other non-native birds ( asian sparrows and starlings) and other natural predators. The liklihood of the host chicks surviving is slim once that cowbird hatches. There is no need to shake the egg. Just remove it and put it somewhere for a squirrel or raccoon to have a meal. If you wait much longer, you will not have any choices to make. Incubation for a cowbird is 10-12 days.

    • It’s a persuasive argument–we “help” nature all the time after we realize our negative impact on it. I’m really stuck on this and I know I don’t have a lot of time. I just wonder where we draw the line. Human impact has affected every species in multiple ways. And who’s to say which bird is “better” or which bird is a “nuisance.” Aren’t we ascribing human emotions and principles to birds when we say one is worse than the other?

  4. Indians initially thought Cow birds laid their eggs in the hides of buffalos. Apparently they were also confused. Anyway what we try to do here is to discourage them being around the area.

  5. Is it at all possible to leave the cowbird egg in there until it hatches, then once the sparrow birds begin to hatch remove it and feed it by hand? I realize this would be an immense undertaking, but it seems like it’s heartbreaking to watch the baby sparrows die and just a little awful to destroy the baby cowbird, too.

    • You country folks–I keep hearing about having to hit crows over the head with shovels and such (okay, I heard one story from a farmer after I told him my bird story).
      Kidding aside – that last line of your comment is the first line of a book. At least one I would write.

  6. Pingback: Life wins. (So far.) « True STORIES.

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