Who’s your Mama?

Brown headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are called brood parasites, birds that lay eggs in other birds’ nests. It’s said that up to 150 different species in North America are parasitized by cowbirds and the host parents then raise the young. Needless to say, cowbirds are generally looked upon with loathing. Whenever I see this species near our bluebird house, I am out the door clapping and shooing the scourges away.

That is until a fledgling cowbird nearly landed in my lap a few days ago. It had been reared by a tiny chipping sparrow and now it seemed abandoned. I watched as it chased every chipping sparrow it saw, more than a dozen around the feeder at a given time. All flew away or scurried to hide when this big baby ran at them, mouth open, flapping wings, and warbling like a baby chipping sparrow.

After watching it beg for a day with no food, I broke down and fed it a few mealworms.

cowbird 1And now the fledgling flies to me several times a day! That makes me wonder how the heck it can learn to be a cowbird. It is still excited to see a chipping sparrow but absolutely thrilled when it sees me open the door. Hey, you are a cowbird, little guy!

cowbird 2

I’ve seen cowbirds walking in the grass nearby but our fella doesn’t seem at all interested. With a Google search, I found Matthew Louder, an ecologist, who states in Animal Behavior journal that the juvenile cowbirds leave the host’s territory at sunset, perhaps encountering adult cowbirds in wooded areas, returning to their hosts in the morning, thus fostering independence.

But it doesn’t explain how juveniles locate and recognize their own kind. Does our little fledgling fly to the woods when the sun sets to meet up with other cowbirds? We don’t know. But, each day it is standing at the door when we rise at 6 a.m.

cowbird 3

Fly away soon, little cowbird.  Fly far, far, far, far away and never come back to lay an egg in our bluebird box!

Four and Twenty Blackbirds….

It’s flocking time for blackbirds in the mid-Atlantic area. Once the breeding season has ended, these birds will band together for protection. On any given day in the fall and winter, it’s not uncommon to see large blackbird flocks consisting of red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown headed cowbirds, and starlings descent upon this yard to noisily feed on insects, grass seeds, our suet feeder and sunflower seeds from our bird feeders. I can’t say I’m happy to see them and their voracious appetites but it can a spectacular sight.

The screeching noise of the entire flock is loud, grating and annoying. Why can’t they just be quiet and eat?  When the noise becomes a bit too much for us, a simple clap of my hands or the banging of two metal cat bowls together will send them off en mass. But they don’t go far. We can hear the screeching sounds just down the shoreline. When they think the coast is clear, they return.This scenario can be repeated all day for weeks until they decide to move on to other locales.

After a week or so, the birds can become accustomed to me rushing out to shout, clap or bang and they just fly upward to fill the area trees and squawk until the crazy lady goes back inside. Then they return to their noisy feeding.

The birds that visit me are flocks but there is another amazing phenomenon of coordinated movements involving masses of birds that is breathtaking to see. It’s called murmuration and can involve thousands of birds. The purple martins put on a spectacular show in Richmond every year but the blackbirds dazzle us with their aerial ballets just about everywhere. The masses seem to collaborate as they dip and dive and rise and divide in unison. There is no leader. How do they do this? Are there any rules? No one really knows but it’s awe-inspiring to watch.

To get an idea of the beauty of murmuration, check out this video of two young people, Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith, who paddled their canoes in wet, winter weather and caught all the wonderful cloud action of starlings on film. Spectacular!

Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.