Friday, June 5, 2009

What Is THAT Bird?!

As I've mentioned before, we are enthusiastic backyard birders around here and have been for years. Last week, however, we were stumped when this bird showed up at our tray feeder. At first, it sat on the feeder's edge, cheeping. A few minutes later, we spied a much smaller white-throated sparrow (tan form) feeding it. The plot thickens! What was this young bird? Obviously not a white-throated sparrow -- the colorings and marking were different, and the baby was already larger than the parent! And why was the sparrow feeding it?

Dh suggested the baby bird's mother had laid her eggs in another bird's nest. That sounded plausible. I flipped through my handy Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds: Eastern Region and found that the mystery bird resembled the female brown-headed cowbird. I also learned that female cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species instead of building their own nests. Success!

I checked the brown-headed cowbird entry at Cornell University's All About Birds website. It turns out that brown-headed cowbirds are small blackbirds. They are also our continent's most common brood parasite, meaning females lay their eggs in other species' nests, and these "foster parents" then raise their young. Talk about hands-off parenting!

The little one now comes to our feeder several times a day. She's learned to eat on her own, and I no longer see her with the sparrow foster parent. I wonder if the sparrow ever noticed that her "baby" was bigger than she!


  1. but it's a cuckoo, surely?!

    "the cuckoo comes in April
    it sings its song in May,
    in the middle of June it changes its tune,
    and then it flies away'

    We know summer's here, when someone writes to The Times about the first cuckoo.

  2. Hi, Jackie! According to the Cornell ornithology site, the only cuckoos here in the states are the black-billed, the yellow-billed, and the mangrove cuckoos, none of which look remotely like your (U.K.) cuckoo. Interestingly, cuckoos are also brood parasites! I like the verse though; thanks for sending!

  3. OK ... yes, they're famous for being brood parasites - 'a cuckoo in the nest' means something that grows disproportionatly and crowds out everything else - a problem, maybe - not sure about 'one flew over the cuckoo's nest' but it's interesting, cos a cuckoo doesn't have a nest!
    Maybe the answer to this question:
    is 'Georgia!'


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