Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/A Feathered Parasite


NOTHING could more clearly prove that a common law runs through the whole domain of Nature than the fact that in every division of her realm there seems to be a class of parasites. In the vegetable world, as is well known, there are various plants that depend wholly upon other plants for the supply of their vital forces. And in the human sphere there are parasites in a very real and literal sense—men and women who rely upon the toil and thrift of others to sustain them in worthless idleness.

In view of the almost universal character of this law it would be strange if these peculiar forms of dependence did not appear in the avian community. We do find such developments in that department of creation. Across the waters there is one bird which has won an unenviable reputation as a parasite, and that is the European cuckoo, which relies almost wholly on the efforts of its more thrifty neighbors to hatch and rear its young, and thereby perpetuate the species. Strangely enough, our American cuckoos are not given to such slovenly habits, but build their own nests and fully perform the duties of nidification, as all respectable feathered folk should. However, this parasitical habit breaks out, quite unexpectedly it must be conceded, in another American family of birds which is entirely distinct from the cuckoo group.

In America the cowbird, often called the cow bunting, is the only member of the avian household that spirits its eggs into the nests of other birds. The theory of evolution can do little toward accounting for the anomaly, and even if it should venture upon some suggestions it would still be just as difficult to explain the cause of the evolution in this special group, while all other avian groups follow the law of thrift and self-reliance.

The cowbird belongs to the family of birds scientifically known as Ideridæ, which includes such familiar species as the bobolinks, orioles, meadow larks, and the various kinds of blackbirds, none of which, I am glad to say, are parasites. The name Molothrus has been given to the genus that includes the cowbirds. They are confined to the American continent, having no analogues in the lands across the seas. The same may be said, indeed, of the whole Ideridæ family. It may be a matter of surprise to many persons that there are twelve species and subspecies of cowbirds in North and South America, for most of us are familiar only with the common cowbird (Molothrus ater) of our temperate regions. Of these twelve species only three are to be found within the limits of the United States, one is a resident of western Mexico and certain parts of Central America, while the rest find habitat exclusively in South America. A fresh field of investigation is open to some enterprising and ambitious naturalist who wishes to study several of these species, as comparatively little is known of their habits, and indeed much still remains to be learned of the whole genus, familiar as one or two of the species are. Their sly, surreptitious manners render them exceedingly difficult to study at close range and with anything like detail.

Are all of them parasites? It is probable they are—at least to a greater or less degree—except one, the bay-winged cowbird of South America, which I shall reserve for notice later on in this article. We might assert that our common cowbird is the parasite par excellence of the family, for, so far as I can learn from reading and observation, they never build their own nests or rear their own young, but shift all the duties of maternity, save the laying of the eggs, upon the shoulders of other innocent birds.

These avian "spongers" have a wide geographical range, inhabiting the greater part of the United States and southern Canada, except the extensive forest regions and some portions of the Southern States. The center of their abundance is the States bordering on the upper Mississippi River and its numerous tributaries. They occur only as stragglers on the Pacific coast west of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The most northern point at which they have been known to breed is the neighborhood of Little Slave Lake in southern Athabasca. In the autumn the majority of these birds migrate to southern Mexico, although a considerable number remain in our Southern States, and a few occasionally tarry for the winter even as far north as New England and southern Michigan.

The male cowbird looks like a well-dressed gentleman—and may have even a slightly clerical air—in his closely fitting suit of glossy black, with its greenish and purplish iridescence, and his cloak of rich metallic brown covering his head, neck, and chest. He makes a poor shift as a musician, but his failure is not due to lack of effort, for during courtship days he does his level best to sing a variety of tunes, expanding and distorting his throat, fluffing up his feathers, spreading out his wings and tail, his purpose evidently being to make himself as fascinating as possible in the eyes of his lady love. One of his calls sounds like the word "spreele," piped in so piercing a key that it seems almost to perforate your brain.

One observer maintains that the cowbirds are not only parasitical in their habits, but are also absolutely devoid of conjugal affection, practicing polyandry, and seldom even mating. This is a serious charge, but it is doubtless true, for even during the season of courtship and breeding these birds live in flocks of six to twelve, the males almost always outnumbering the females. However, if their sexual relations are somewhat irregular, no one can accuse them of engaging in family brawls, as so many other birds do, for both males and females seem to be on the most cordial terms with one another, and are, to all appearances, entirely free from jealousy. Who has ever seen two cowbirds fighting a duel like the orioles, meadow larks, and robins? Their domestic relations seem to be readily adjusted, perhaps all the more so on account of their lax standards of sexual virtue.

In obtruding her eggs into the nests of other birds Madame Cowbird is sly and stealthy. She does not drive the rightful owners from their nests, but simply watches her opportunity to drop her eggs into them when they are unguarded. No doubt she has been on the alert while her industrious neighbors have been constructing their domiciles, and knows where every nest in the vicinity is hidden. Says Major Charles Bendire: "In rare instances only will a fresh cowbird's egg be found among incubated ones of the rightful owners. I have observed this only on a single occasion." From one to seven eggs of the parasite are found in the nests of the dupes. In most cases the number is two, but in the case of ground builders the cowbird seems to have little fear of overdoing her imposition. Major Bendire says that he once found the nest of an ovenbird which contained seven cowbird's egg's and only one of the little owner's.

If parasitism were the only crime of the cowbird one would not feel so much disposed to put her into the avian Newgate Calendar; but she not only inflicts her own eggs upon her innocent victims, but often actually tosses their eggs out of the nests in order to make room for her own. Nor is that all; she will sometimes puncture the eggs of the owners to prevent their hatching, and thus increase the chances of her own offspring. Whether this is done with her beak or her claws is still an open question, Major Bendire inclining to the belief that it is done with the claws.

Her finesse is still further to be seen in the fact that she usually selects some bird for a victim that is smaller than herself, so that when her young hopefuls begin to grow they will be able to crowd or starve out the true heirs of the family. In this way it is thought that many a brood comes to an untimely end, the foster parents having no means of replacing their own little ones when they have been ejected from the nest. However, I am disposed to think that the cowbird's impositions are not usually so destructive as some observers are inclined to believe. I once found a bush sparrow's nest containing one cowbird and four little sparrows, all of which were in a thriving condition. The sparrows were so well fed and active that as soon as I touched the nest they sprang, with loud chirping, over the rim of their cottage and scuttled away through the grass. They were certainly strong and healthy, in spite of the presence of their big foster brother. Before they flitted away I had time to notice how the little family were disposed. The cowbird was squatted in the center of the nest, while his little brothers and sisters were ranged around him, partly covering him and no doubt keeping him snug and warm. They were further advanced than he, for while they scrambled from the nest, he could do nothing but snuggle close to the bottom of the cup, where he was at my mercy.

A wood thrush's nest that I found contained two young thrushes and two buntings. All of them were about half fledged. Being of nearly the same size, the queerly assorted bantlings lived in apparent peace in their narrow quarters. I watched them at frequent intervals, but saw no attempts on the part of the foundlings to crowd out their fellow-nestlings. The cowbirds were the first to leave the roof-tree. Thus it appears that the intrusion of the cowbird's eggs does not always mean disaster to the real offspring of the brooding family, but of course it always, prevents the laying of the full complement of eggs by the builders themselves.

Even after the youngsters have left the nest the mother cowbird does not assume the care of them, but still leaves them in charge of the foster parents. It is laughable, almost pathetic, to see a tiny ovenbird or redstart feeding a strapping young cowbird which is several times as large as herself. She looks like a pygmy feeding a giant. In order to thrust a tidbit into his mouth she must often stand on her tiptoes. Why the diminutive caterer does not see through the fraud I can not say. She really seems to be attached to the hulking youngster. By and by, however, when he grows large enough to shift for himself, he deserts his little parents and nurses and seeks companionship among his own blood kindred, who will doubtless bring him up in the way all cowbirds should walk.

It is surprising how many species are imposed on successfully by the cowbird. The number, so far as has been observed, is ninety, with probably more to be added. Among the birds most frequently victimized are the phœbes, the song sparrows, the indigo birds, the bush sparrows, and the yellow-breasted chats. Even the nests of the red-headed woodpecker and the rock wrens are not exempt. Some species, notably the summer warblers, detect the imposture and set about defeating the purposes of the interloper. This they do by building another story to their little cottage, leaving the obtruded eggs in the cellar, where they do not receive enough warmth to develop the embryo.

While it is surprising that acute birds should allow themselves to be imposed on in this way, perhaps, after all, they look upon the cowbird as a kind of blessing in disguise; at least, he may not be an unmixed evil. They may act on the principle of reciprocity—that "one good turn deserves another." What I mean is this: In my rambles I have often found the cowbirds the first to give warning of the approach of a supposed danger. Having no domestic duties of their own, they can well secrete themselves in a tall tree overlooking the entire premises, and thus play the useful role of sentinel. This, I am disposed to believe, is one of the compensating uses of this parasite, and may furnish the reason for his being tolerated in birdland. And he is tolerated. Has any one ever seen other birds driving the cowbird away from their breeding precincts, or charging him with desperate courage as they do the blue jays, the hawks, the owls, and other predatory species? He evidently subserves some useful purpose in the avian community, or he would not be treated with so much consideration.

A young cowbird that I purloined from the nest and reared by hand did not prove a very pleasant pet. He was placed in a large cage with several other kinds of young birds. At first he was quite docile, taking his food from my hand and even allowing some of his feathered companions to feed him; but in a few weeks he grew so wild and manifested such a fierce desire for the outdoor world that I was glad to carry him out to the woods and give him his freedom. A young red-winged blackbird and a pair of meadow larks developed a different disposition.

The dwarf cowbird (Molothrus ater obscurus) is similar to his relative just described, except that he is smaller and his geographical range is more restricted. He is a resident of Mexico, southern Texas, southwestern Arizona, and southern California. His habits resemble those of the common cowbird. Another bunting, having almost the same range, although a little more southerly, is the red-eyed cowbird, which is larger and darker than our common cowbird and has the same parasitical habits.

In South America three species have been studied by Mr. W. H. Hudson, who, in collaboration with Mr. P. L. Sclater, has published a most valuable work on Argentine ornithology. One of these is called the Argentine cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis). It is a bona fide, blue-blooded parasite, and has been seen striking its beak into the eggs of other birds and flying away with them. The males, it is said, show little discrimination in pecking the eggs, for they are just as likely to puncture the cowbird eggs as those of other birds. Every egg in a nest is frequently perforated in this way. These buntings lay a large number of eggs, often dropping them on the ground, laying them in abandoned nests, or depositing them in nests in which incubation has already begun, in which cases all of them are lost. However, in spite of this wastefulness the birds thrive, thousands of them being seen in flocks during the season of migration.

And, by the way, a description of their habits by Mr. Hudson has thrown an interesting light on the subject of migration in the southern hemisphere. South of the equator the recurrence of the seasons is the exact reverse of their recurrence north of the equator, and therefore the breeding season of the birds is in the autumn instead of the spring; the flight from winter cold occurs in the spring instead of in the autumn, and is toward the north instead of toward the south. Thus, in February and March the Argentine cowbirds are seen flying in vast battalions in the direction of the equatorial regions—that is, northward—in whose salubrious clime they spend the winter. As our northern autumn draws near and the southern summer approaches these winged migrants take the air line for their breeding haunts in the Argentine Republic and Patagonia. At the same time the migrants of the northern hemisphere are pressing southward before the blustering mien of old Boreas. It all seems wonderful and solemn, this world-wide processional of the seasons and the birds.

Naturally, one would expect to find some other eccentricities in this aberrant family besides that of parasitism, and in this expectation one is not disappointed. There are two other species of cowbirds in the Argentine country—the screaming cowbird (Molothrus rufoaxillaris) and the bay-winged cowbird (Molothrus badius). The latter is only partly a trencher on the rights of other birds—that is, it is only half a parasite. Indeed, it sometimes builds its own nest, which is quite a respectable affair; but, as if to prove that it still has some remnants of cowbird depravity in its nature, it frequently drives other birds from their rightful possessions, appropriates the quarters thus acquired, lays its eggs into them, and proceeds to the performance of its domestic duties like its respectable neighbors. Its virtue is that it never imposes the work of incubation and brood rearing on any of its feathered associates, even though it does sometimes eject them from their premises.

But what is to be said of the screaming cowbird? Instead of inflicting its eggs on its more distant avian relatives it watches its chance and slyly drops them into the domicile of its bay-winged cousins, and actually makes them hatch and rear its offspring! This seems to be carrying imposture to the extreme of refinement, or possibly developing it into a fine art, and reminds one of those human good-for-naughts who "sponge" off their relatives rather than go among strangers. One can scarcely refrain from wondering whether grave questions of pauperism and shiftlessness ever enter into the discussion of "the social problem" in the bird community.