No Realtors Needed: Scooter Talks About Florida’s Worst Wild Bird Home Invaders, Cowbirds

Cowbird on a WBU Dinner Bell Feeder

Cowbird on a WBU Dinner Bell Feeder

Squatters. Home-wreckers. Home invaders. Thieves. Parasites. Whatever they may be called, the natural world certainly has its share of animals who will take advantage of the hard earned rewards of another animal. Out west, Burrowing Owls often enjoy a pre-fab home dug by gophers, prairie dogs and other ground-dwelling animals who burrow for shelter. Although, the exception with these diminutive owls would be Florida’s own Broward County Burrowing Owls. These innovators dig their own if a vacant gopher tortoise or armadillo hole isn’t available. And, also in exception, they raise their own young as opposed to some invaders who actually go so far as to leave an egg of their own to be hatched and raised, entirely, by another bird species. Nice, huh?

While Florida’s wild bird population is mostly adept at making their own nests and raising their own young, one of the most egregious wild bird agitators enjoys a more lackadaisical view of home ownership and parental responsibility. This would be the Cowbird. Known as a “brood parasite”, Florida’s Cowbird is among the top on our list of pesky birds and is a national nuisance, by and large.

Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop

wbu brown cowbird

Cowbird Photo Courtesy of WBU

As one of –some say the worst– most prominent brood parasites in North America, the Cowbird will intentionally seek out and lay an egg in the nest of an unsuspecting wild bird counterpart. The Cowbird then leaves for less stressful pastures while its egg is left to hatch and be raised by whatever existing bird family has supplied the applicable nest. The unfortunate side-effect of such a pronounced activity, and one we should all be aware of, is that this can cause a lengthy list of damages to wild bird populations.

nps cowbird egg in sparrow nest

Cowbird egg in Sparrow Nest Photo Courtesy of NPS

It would be a lovely thought to consider another wild bird raising the young of a seemingly unfit parent, however, since Cowbirds tend to hatch before their nest-mates and since Cowbird hatchlings tend to be larger, they often win out as far as feeding and parental attention goes. Cowbird hatchlings are also well known for tossing out rival eggs and smaller hatchlings in an effort to stave off any competition. While the cruelty is evident, the Cowbird is only doing as nature intended; trying to survive.

However, the survival of the fittest can have devastating effects on Florida’s wild bird population as a whole. Propagating a vicious cycle where the Cowbird remains dominant within smaller nesting and breeding circles, the Cowbird remains at the top of the proverbial food chain in as consistent a manner as possible. Leaving its young to be handled and raised by another bird, offers the Cowbird an unlimited timeframe where it can feed, breed and deliver its offspring to other unsuspecting nests… unhindered. Leaving its more physically advantaged young to possibly kill its smaller and younger nestmates, makes for an insurance policy that any subsequent Cowbird offspring will have the health and ability to repeat the process.

In the natural world, regular cycles of feeding and breeding are what can make or break a species. Due to this repeated and deliberate pillaging, Cowbirds can sometimes overtake small areas in backyard habitats where other birds feed, nest and breed. While most wild bird enthusiasts are accepting of even the most apparent bully birds, with such a risk involved, some preventive measures should be attempted for the safety and health of all of Florida’s wild bird population.

wbu cowbird3While nature and conservation-based officials and agencies work hard to confront this activity, the task to keep Cowbird activity in a simple backyard habitat is a tough one and limited in its scope. The best way to ensure that Cowbirds take their pillaging nature elsewhere –or at least keep it to a minimum– is to plant dense brush and foliage that can hide nests from sight.  As suggested in the University of Florida’s Extension Office’s handbook on foliage, some of these plants may include Cocoplum, Myrsine and the Southern wax Myrtle. These dense shrubs do well in Florida’s heat and salt air and provide dense coverage for nesting song birds preferable in Florida’s backyard habitats.

Since Cowbirds are largely ground-feeding wild birds, WBU Clearwater/Safety Harbor suggests keeping feed and seed in high hanging feeders on decks, APS units or windows. This may help to sway their activity.nps cowbird egg in plumbeous vireo nest

While we may recoil at the thought of the Cowbird’s less-than-neighborly approach to social cooperation, we must understand that in nature, the design is but a portion of what the intention holds. Somewhere, at some time, there was a reason why this bird evolved to engage in such a behavior. Perhaps somewhere along its evolutionary trek, its own breeding process was interrupted and this adaptation occurred as its only means to ensure its survival and extension of its own species. Who knows for sure? At any rate, it remains a fascinating subject for naturalists, ornithologists and wild bird enthusiasts all over the world.

 Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop

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Hammock Bird Banding

A dynamic update on the Migratory Bird Banding Project in Hammock Park, Dunedin, Florida.

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