“A cowbird need keep a sharp eye, for the threat of a falling cow pie”
Cowbirds are universally hated by bird enthusiasts and their name is usually enunciated with a sneer – along with a few unprintable prefixes. Granted, their negative reputation is deserved. As nest parasites they are responsible for pushing some songbird populations into the red zone. Depending on whom you talk to, or read from, these birds successfully parasitize some 140 plus species and their activities have the potential to push some, such as the Kirtland’s Warbler, over the brink. Their badness stems from their goodness, however. They are very good at the bad thing they do and we – as a species – are partially to blame.
Up until about 200 years ago, Brown-headed Cowbirds were content to follow the roaming herds of Bison over the Great Plains. They fed upon the insects kicked up by the stomping hooves and those attracted to their steaming piles of poo. As the eastern lands were cleared by European settlement and populated with bison-like herds of cattle, the birds spread east of the Mississippi. In other words we created ideal cowbird habitats across the landscape and the birds accepted our un-intended invitation. In their new stomping grounds these blackbirds are bad news because they are victimizing woodland birds unaccustomed to deal with this behavior.
Now that I’ve got all this sordid history out of the way, we can now look at these foul little fowl without guilt. Yes they are “bad” and yes it would be nice to push them back across the mighty Miss, but that ain’t going to happen anytime soon. So, let me be the first to say these G… D… Cowbirds are entertaining little creatures to watch. Springtime is the best time.
On a bright sunny morning along the Lake Huron shore my attention was drawn to a cluster of Cowbirds engaged in courtship. A group of three males were in display mode in the lofty upper branches of a dead tree while two females engaged in their own up-frontery on a lower limb. The males were not displaying to the females but to each other.
Male Brown-headed Cowbirds are easy to identify (see above). They are small, slightly glossy, black birds with brown heads. One way to remember this is to remember this ditty “To paint the head of a cowbird, you must start with the color of cow turd.” The females are about as plain as you can get – in fact, the color of dried cow patties (if we are to keep this thing within proper scatological imagery).
The first step of cowbird courtship etiquette is to clear the room of competing suitors and my Lake Huron cluster was in full performance mode. The three males alternated between bouts of “bill pointing” and “toppling forward bows.” These two behaviors are meant to establish a dominance system within the brotherhood. Heads up and bills pointing heaven-ward the three attempted to look as thin and tall as possible. Then, one by one, they puffed up into a ridiculous ball and fell forward to the point of nearly falling off the limb. This display was accompanied by a bubbly gurgle that has been described as “bubko lum tsee.” The “bubko” part is liquidy and soft while the “tsee” portion is higher pitched.
The females were also bill pointing much of this time. As a rule, the gals do not get into the toppling thing instead they satisfy themselves by calling each other words that rhyme with ditch and more.
After about 15 minutes the cowbirds flew away, but all in the same direction. At some point in time all this bubbling and tipping will result in a clear definition of which males can pair up with which females. The males will turn this same toppling bow behavior toward impressing their females. Brown-headed cowbirds are basically monogamous and once a pair of birds hook up (as in “hey baby I like the way you topple”) they pretty much stay together for the balance of the season. Their orphan offspring will be individually raised by the likes of Yellow Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, and Vireos but they will be genuine little brown-headed bastards with cow poop in their veins and a bubko lum tsee in their hearts.