Barry Kent MacKayArt by Barry Kent MacKay
Art and Photo Presentation

In this section are copies of original works of art. All of them are dedicated to helping us live according to unconditional love and compassion, which is the foundation of our peaceful means of bringing true and lasting peace to all of God's creatures, whether they are human beings or other animals.

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

Brown-headed Cowbird
(Artwork - 051)
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

 I am somewhat isolated in my affection for the Brown-headed Cowbird, a very common species found throughout nearly all of temperate and subtropical North America, south deep into Mexico. Northern birds are migratory. They are members of the blackbird family, Icteridae, which is confined to the western hemisphere, and includes what are called orioles, meadowlarks, grackles, Bobolinks, caciques, and troupials.

Dislike of cowbirds derives from the fact that they lay their eggs in the nests of any of a wide range of other species, usually smaller birds, and those eggs hatch to produce sturdy nestlings who evict the nest-builder’s own eggs or babies. Thus for virtually every cowbird you see, a clutch of baby birds of another species perished. The cowbirds don’t simply forget their own eggs, but seem to keep watch on them, and will even ravage the nest if the host does not brood the egg, as if taking revenge.

Of course the cowbirds are not purposeful (unlike humans choosing to consume the eggs, not to mention the muscles, of chickens) but are what are called “obligate brood parasites”; they have no choice. I tend to see the results a little differently than do the cowbird critics. Since it is not possible for the gravid female cowbird to find every nest of a host species, the numbers of cowbirds signify healthy numbers of their hosts. Most of the hosts are smaller species, and in my suburban neighbourhood the most commonly seen surrogate cowbird parent is the Chipping Sparrow.

It is not unusual to see a baby cowbird larger than the Chipping Sparrow, or other species, feeding it. The stress of satisfying a single baby cowbird appear to be equal to, if not greater than, those associated with feeding an entire brood of the host’s own young, but we still do have lots of Chipping Sparrows. Some species have evolved strategies to cope with the cowbird eggs. American Robins and Gray Catbirds usually just pitch them from the nest. Yellow Warblers are famous for building another floor to the nest over top of the cowbird (and their own) eggs, and some such nests are several tiers high. Gnatcatchers abandon the nest, including their own, as well as the invasive eggs. The unwitting host feeds the intrusive cowbird what its own young what cowbird babies require, and the latter may sicken and die for lack of the species-appropriate diet, mostly insects.

Adult male cowbirds are a deep steel-blue-black colour, quite iridescent in the sunlight, with bronzy iridescence to their brown heads. The female is a more subdued grey colour overall, although with subtle patterning. Young birds are similar to the females but with streakier, and lighter, overall.

Males have an elaborate breeding display that involves much ritualistic posturing and pointing to the sky, plus a gurgling song that often ends on a very high pitch as the bird abruptly fluffs body feathers, half spreads the wings and suddenly bows downward. Flocks of cowbirds often associate with cattle (or bison) and with other blackbird species and Common Starlings. Here in southern Ontario they are a harbinger of spring.

“Molothrus” derives from the Ancient Greek word “molos” (struggle) combined with “throsko” (to impregnate) while “ater” means dull black in Latin. I doubt they struggle to reproduce although they do seem to go to elaborate effort to impress females. In sunlight the male’s black plumage is certainly not dull.

The painting, approximately life-size, is in acrylics on compressed hardboard and is 10” by 8”.

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Copyright © Barry Kent MacKay
Barry describes himself as a Canadian artist/writer/naturalist.
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