About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Photo Share: Cowbird Baby

Hello, We put up our first backyard bird feeders this summer and are really enjoying watching all of the birds and their interactions. This morning we noticed the bird in the attached pictures perching on, or near, the feeder.  The feathers seem to be a grayish color and I couldn't tell if it is a younger bird or the female of its species.  Because of this, we have had a hard time identifying the species.

It was also doing something peculiar.  Whenever a chipping sparrow would come by, the bird would begin opening its beak and asking for food the way a baby bird does in the nest.  Most of the time the sparrows would feed it. 
It stood out as peculiar because the bird asking for food was about three times the size of the sparrows.
My questions are:
1. Do you know what type of bird this is?
2. Is it common for a bird of one species to feed the young of another?
Thanks for any help you can offer! We love your website and enjoy reading the blog posts.  My 4-year old son especially likes looking at the pictures! Sincerely, Chris F.

You've made some great observations:

1. It is a baby Brown-headed cowbird. The cowbird is North America’s most common “brood parasite.” A female cowbird makes no nest of her own, but instead lays her eggs in the nests of other bird species, who then raise the young cowbirds.

They find nests by watching quietly for signs of other birds building nests, or they flutter through vegetation trying to flush birds from their nests. Cowbird eggs hatch faster than other species eggs, giving cowbird nestlings a head start in getting food from the parents.

These blackbirds followed bison herds originally, eating bugs and seeds tossed up as a herd grazed the Great Plains. Eventually this "cow" bird spread eastward in the 1800s as forests were cleared and livestock farming expanded.

They are now common across most of North America. Their habit of nest parasitism allowed the bird greater freedom to roam during the spring and summer while several foster bird parents raised their many cowbird babies.

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds have a rich brown head and a glossy black body. Female Brown-headed Cowbirds are gray-brown birds, with fine streaking on the belly and a dark eye. The juvenile looks very similar to the female.

2. This baby cowbird sees the Chipping Sparrow as his foster parent and so it is not unusual to see him asking that bird for food. However it's not unheard of for a birds' parental instincts to kick in at the sight of small open mouths eliciting an inborn response to feed. Sometimes when parents bring there young to a feeder it gets a little confusing and if a baby bird from another species happens to be there with an open mouth, it might get fed too.

Related Articles:
- How Do Cowbirds Learn to Sing? http://goo.gl/n6kYS 

- Brown-headed Cowbirds http://lansingwbu.blogspot.com/2009/05/cowbirds.html 
- How young cowbirds know they're cowbirds http://goo.gl/hYSyUV 
- Basic Instinct: Cardinal Feeds Goldfish http://bit.ly/Kgv2Mi
- Starling and sparrow nesting together http://goo.gl/5aQftb

Thank you for sharing your photo! If anyone else would like to share a photograph of nature send it to bloubird@gmail.com and I'll put it on the Friday Photo posts.

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