A simple survey question got me thinking about the parasitic cowbird.

The National Audubon Society asked me if I would answer a short monthly survey to help them better know the concerns and interests of their members. Why, oh why, did I say yes? I avoid surveys as much as I can. They tend to ask questions I find impossible to answer, like “What is your favorite bird?”

So many cool birds out there. How do you pick just one?
(Drawing by Kit Dunsmore)

I’ve mentioned before my trouble with picking favorites. Faced with picking a favorite bird, I balked. My first reaction was “I like them all.” And embarrassingly enough, this is true.

Long before I became a birder, I was part of a natural sound-recording workshop. I was there to teach about sound analysis, but the other instructors loaned me equipment so I could make recordings, too. As the dawn chorus filled the woods, I got as close as I could to the singing birds to record them.

Because I didn’t know any bird songs, I had to have other instructors identify the birds I’d recorded. Usually, I waited until we were back at camp, but there was one morning where the unusual song I heard was so exciting that I couldn’t wait. I had to know what was responsible for that wonderful metallic liquid song. I’d never heard anything like it before and I loved it.

I tracked down an instructor and played my recording for him. He scowled, then said, “Brown-headed cowbird.” I could tell from his tone of voice that he didn’t like them, but I hadn’t heard of them before that day.

Brown-headed cowbirds (1. Male 2. Female 3. Juvenile)

I found out later that most birders hate them. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, who raise these imposters as their own, to the detriment of their own nestlings. Their parasitic habits affect over 220 different species of birds and they are blamed for the decline of some endangered species.

Unfortunately, I have a history of loving the wrong things. When I got interested in wildflowers and began learning their names, I was drawn to the bright blossoms of roadside chicory. A color somewhere between blue and purple, these flowers always made me smile, so I looked them up in my field guide.

My mom included chicory in a mural of my favorites. That’s how much I love it.
(Close up of ceramic tile mural by Jane Dunsmore)

They were listed as invasive aliens, a species that didn’t belong where I was seeing it and that was out-competing native plants. Once again, I had fallen in love with an undesirable. My only consolation is that someone else found chicory pretty as well, or they wouldn’t have brought it with them to the Americas. (Knowing my luck, it just hitched a ride in a batch of crop seeds and invaded all on its wily own.)

It’s easy to hate plants and animals that are in the wrong place and causing problems for the natives, but they are just doing what they naturally do. Brown-headed cowbirds have been around for a long time, but they have only become a real threat to other species since we came along. Not only does farming and cattle-ranching produce more feeding grounds for cowbirds, but habitat loss has been shown to have an even bigger impact on dwindling bird species than cowbirds do.

We blame the cowbirds, but we’re the problem. We’re the one who change the environment, clearing land to farm and build, and wiping out the natural habitats of the songbirds that wind up raising the baby cowbirds. Everything else is just responding to the changes we make. This leaves me free to love cowbirds despite their parasitic ways.

Because of this tendency of mine, I actually considered naming the Brown-headed cowbird my favorite. That would shake them up at the Audubon Society. They might even decide not to send me any more surveys. But I didn’t do it.

Instead, I wrote “I like them all,” and hit “Submit.” Naturally, it was later that day when my true answer finally came to me.

My new favorite because I just saw it: blue-winged teal.
(Photo shot with cell phone through spotting scope by Kit Dunsmore)

My favorite bird is always the last one I’ve seen. Every species out there has its attractions and its problems. Some stories are sad and some are hopeful. But to me, they are all interesting, and they are all beautiful.

Even house sparrows. Even starlings. Even cowbirds.

What’s your favorite bird?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 1 MB. You can upload: image. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.