Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 22, 2014

Cowbirds Amongst the Cows

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:37 pm

There is little reason to celebrate Cowbirds, but the sight of thousands of ‘em does invoke some small sense of awe. Most cowbirds migrate south for the winter and you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect to see any until winter has released its grip. On a recent trip down the road to Calder Dairy for some farm fresh cream and whiffs of bovine dung, I was amazed to see a huge flock of these blackbirds hanging about the place.

The pines adjacent to the parking lot were adorned with their shimmering black and brown bodies and the cow barn was equally packed with feathered life. It was bitter cold and very wintery. There was nary a touch of spring in the air yet the cowbirds were present and very much accounted for. The scene was rendered slightly magical by gentle falling snow and the bubbling sounds generated by a thousand little throats.

Being early February, it was possible that this was a very early migrant flock. I do know that the birds weren’t there back in January. An even mixture of Starlings peppered the flock, however, so it had the make-up of a generic off-season blackbird flock. Birds of a black feather do flock together during the cold months.

Technically these birds are called Brown-headed Cowbirds and even a cursory glance at a male bird proves this to be an appropriate name. Personally, and I have stated this before, I believe the brown heads result from all black birds following closely behind load-dumping cattle. Of course, this is not true but it provides a great memory trick for name recognition. Why anyone would need a memory trick to remember the name of Brown-headed Cowbirds is beyond me but then again so much of the world is beyond me. The original cows followed by these birds were Great Plains Bison and they gradually switched to domestic cattle when they replaced the wild bovines. The domestic hind ends also allowed the cowbirds to travel east and establish themselves on the Great Plains of Monroe County, Mich.

Female cowbirds are all brown – which means that they are either completely covered with cow dung or simply un-encumbered by the need for black feathers. No matter what, the females are possibly the most generic looking bird on the planet. A good way to identify a female Cowbird is the complete lack of any distinguishing features. Remember that cowbirds are nest parasites that need to sneak into and out of other bird nests in order to lay their eggs. You do not find nest parasites adorned with magnificent crimson crests or plumed tails.


There is always plenty of feed lying around a farm. Apart from feeding the livestock this also provides a horn of plenty for the wintering poop birds. The Calder Farm would be as close to paradise as an earthbound bird could expect would it not be for the presence of a wandering source of anarchy in the form of a black cat. I’m sure there are plenty of loose felines around the farm, but one of them caught my eye.

Normally I would rather throw my camera into a fresh pile of cow poo than use it to take a picture of a cat. I was temporarily fascinated by this feline. It sauntered by as if on a Sunday walk, even pausing to “clean itself” in that glorious cat manner. There were several drops of rich red blood frozen on its whiskers indicating the source of it latest meal. To say it looked guilty would be an understatement. The winter feedlot birds, including the plentitude of cowbirds, are a constant source of personal satisfaction.

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