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97 Judge Not the Brown-headed Cowbird Brown-headed cowbirds aren’t pretty like the gaudy male songbirds of our woodlands. Their traditional habitat was, literally, where the buffalo roamed,and that’s a place where being eye-catching can be synonymous with a death warrant. Instead, like grassland sparrows, prairie grouse, and others of their ilk that prefer to remain alive long enough to reproduce, cowbirds evolved to fit in. The female is nondescript brown, the male more dapper in black topped by a brown head. Both are amply lovely if you appreciate nature’s way of placing environmental function ahead of vanity. Eye-catching adornment might draw some admiring glances if you’re a fashionable young woman at a shopping mall, but in the wild it’ll get a bird killed in a world of tan grass, gray rock, and brown buffalo dung. Brown-headed cowbirds, members of the successful blackbird tribe, long ago evolved away from the flashy looks more suited to the dark green shadows of the forest and instead adopted a lifestyle in sync with open country—particularly grassland that supported buffalo herds. Bison of the American steppes were an insect magnet and therefore a cowbird magnet as well. Flies attracted to the herds and bugs dislodged by grazing were a movable feast. Brown-headed 98 Judge Not the Brown-headed Cowbird cowbirds zealously followed their pantry on the hoof, and in doing so they became the vagabonds of the North American hinterland. It was a successful adaptation until Europeans arrived with their guns, cows, and plows. The newcomers cleared the land and stocked the newly created pastures with cattle. At the same time, some of their more resilient kin headed west to kill the buffalo. For cowbirds, the demise of the buffalo meant evolutionary crisis. But true to tribal genetics, they adapted quickly when domestic livestock became the new buffalo in the cowbird world. Cowbirds expanded their range to wherever a bovine hoisted its tail next to a fence. Yet in doing so the species created enemies. The cowbird had long ago forsaken the traditional stay-at-home lifestyle of “good” birds. Instead, upon mating, brown-headed cowbirds searched for an existing nest constructed by a different species, left an egg in it, and moved on with the restless herds. Sometimes the parasitized nest builders would recognize an alien egg among its own, sometimes it wouldn’t. If the cowbird egg hatched, the adoptive parents would be faced with feeding a chick that was often larger, more aggressive, and ultimately more successful than the other nestlings. If all went well, the cowbird chick was the benefactor of a reproductive strategy that was good for the adult cowbirds, good for an impostor nestling with a large appetite, but a strain on foster parents and any noncowbird baby birds that ended up with the short end of the worm. Over time, many grassland species learned to give the alien cowbird egg a toss or even build another nest layer atop it. But when cowbirds began to move into cow pastures back east, their procreation tactics affected a number of naive songbirds and drew society’s ire. Unfortunately for the vagabonds of the plains, people had an anthropomorphic tendency to despise them for a survival strategy that, for thousands of years, had simply come naturally. This was totally unfair, of course. Brown-headed cowbirds aren’t people. They don’t perch on a branch plotting ways to forsake their child-rearing duties. They don’t snicker at the thought that their proclivity for brood parasitism might push species uneducated in the ways of cowbirdism to the edge of extinction. What they do started with the buffalo, and if we’re going to be anthropomorphic, there’s a certain romance surrounding a bird that adapted to wind, grass, and animals with restless feet, millions and millions of them. Bison and cowbirds were roamers all and allies forever, it would have seemed. Yet 99 Judge Not the Brown-headed Cowbird the buffalo never were a match for a steel plow and a .45-70 bullet, and cowbirds couldn’t contend with the human propensity to judge wildlife under the auspices of so-called civilized values. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the brown-headed cowbird. Yet few others seem to share my view, not even dedicated birders with their legendary zeal for anything with feathers. I believe the male cowbird ’s purling song has the sound of...


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