Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Brown-headed Cowbird?

Why do we hate the Brown-headed Cowbird so much? Is the hatred deserved? After all, cowbirds don’t fragment habitat.
Brown-headed Cowbird
The Brown-headed Cowbird is known to use the nests of more than 200 other bird species. Cowbirds used to follow the large herds of Bison and as nomads, didn’t have time for nest building and incubating. While cowbirds are native, they are often considered nuiscence birds because of their parasitic behavior. While some birds have learned to deal with these parasites, others have not had time to develop ways to counter the problem. This is especially a problem with rare birds like Kirtland’s Warbler.

Since 1972, more than 120,000 cowbirds had been trapped and killed. [In] the first decade of cowbird removal, parasitism dropped to just 3.4 percent of Kirtland’s Warbler. The number of breeding pairs, however, stayed about the same. In 1981, a prescribed burn got out of control and the wildfire scarred 24,000 acres of pine forest. The fire created more suitable habitat, and the number of breeding warbler pairs began to increase. – Wildbird, March/April 2005

While most birders would agree that Kirtland’s Warblers are prettier and “better” than Brown-headed Cowbirds, it is not our duty to pick one species over another. Cowbirds are just as native to the U.S. and perhaps more so since they are year-round residents. The problem is that human activity has created ideal conditions for these opportunistic birds. Instead of killing them off, it would be much wiser to create massive, unbroken habitats. Creating Bison habitat might just put the cowbirds back where they belong.

Would it really be effective to try and prevent Brown-headed Cowbirds from laying eggs in nests of 200 species of birds?

6 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Brown-headed Cowbird?

  1. Bravo! Thanks for making this daring statement. We have a history of scapegoating various bird species as the destroyers of other (usually prettier) species, including the the bald eagle and various raptors. Today’s scapegoat is the brown-headed cowbird, although there are many other parasitic breeders out there. Kirtland’s Warblers have recently been found nesting in Wisconsin, so all is not lost as they are clearly seeking out appropriate habitat, cowbird or no cowbird. Viva la cowbird!

    As an aside, how much money–tax dollars and otherwise–do you suppose is being spent trying to eradicate the cowbird? And if we stop, who would lose that income?

  2. Then again….if this bird is native to the states, it means that natural selection has worked side to side with him and the rest of his hosts….so if erradication of the bird is the plan then on the long run negative consequences will fall upon on the species of hosts.
    Remember the wolves and the trees in yellowstone, kind of like that.

  3. I’m with you on that statement.-We shouldn’t just choose birds by whose the cutest.-It’s also not the fault of birds that were introduced form other countries-those birds are just trying to do what’s natural-survive.-Cowbirds weren’t even an introduced bird.

  4. One religion, one currency, why not one bird? If we don’t stop the cowbird it will soon be the only bird left!!! So many cowbirds, so few bullets

  5. Has nothing to do with pretty or ugly…has to do with the fact that Cowbirds are literally destroying other species…that’s NOT o.k. and it’s time to bring the problem under control.

  6. Thanks everyone for the comments!

    We’ll have to revisit this topic again in the near future . . . we’ve learned some new research on Brown-headed Cowbirds. They are definitely a “problem” but it is different from a lot of other problems birds face.

    Again, it is fragmentation that cowbirds take advantage of (and use their own natural abilities to do so). It has been proven that by eliminating the fragmentation, the cowbird problem declines dramatically.

    Woodland species are the ones that suffer most because they haven’t had the time to adapt to a problem they historically didn’t deal with (unlike prairie/grassland birds who have lived (dealt) with cowbirds for eons.

    We will try and get some more info and something posted soon!

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