Sunday, April 18, 2021

The black bird on the patio

is sleek and beautiful, the feathers iridescent and I love it immediately, spending a couple of days trying to catch it on our bird feeder, so I can sneak up quietly and take a picture. Ever since the weirdo Cardinal incident of March 2021, I've been obsessed with the birds in my backyard. 

The main character in the book I'm working on is a bird expert and I freely admit I know next to nothing about them, but I am eager to learn. Confession: I used to think bird-watching was a boring hobby. Who has time to sit around watching birds? Also, I have that poem Letters from a Father by Mona Van Duyn in my head, and while I love that poem, it has always made me associate bird-watching with old people. 

Maybe I am an old person now though because I am getting a kick out of watching these birds. This sleek lovely black one, for example. I have a bird identifying book on my kitchen counter, right by the window where the bird feeder hangs, so I can easily look up who is who. The black one is too small to be a Blackbird. It's not speckled enough to be a Starling. I find a match, the Cowbird, and I am so excited, 

for about two seconds.

Cowbirds are what they call brood parasites. The female follows other birds around, finds where they're nesting, and sneaks in and lays eggs in the other birds' nests. The unsuspecting bird nester bird sits on the Cowbird's eggs. And get this: the Cowbird eggs are bigger and when those birds hatch, they crowd out the others or even push the other baby birds out, which honestly, seems so shitty and selfish

and sad. And even worse, in our yard, because if you remember what happened with the freaky Cardinal, my husband taped a box up under the porch eaves in case it needed a safe warm place to burrow or whatever you call it. Well, the Cardinal didn't bother with the box, but a lovely Mourning Dove couple moved in,

and now I can see the Mourning Dove mother sitting on her eggs (IS ONE OF THEM A COWBIRD EGG??!!), the father coo-coo-cooing close by, the asshole Cowbirds hopping around our bird feeder and I feel totally complicit in the whole mess. 

But as a side note, my bird book did point out that while the Cowbird's nesting (or rather, not-nesting) style is detrimental to many songbirds, it's not a 100% sure thing for them either, evolutionarily-speaking. Many birds, when they notice the Cowbird egg, abandon the nest. Some Cowbirds do end up being raised by the unsuspecting foster birds, but they never imprint on their own kind and therefore never mate themselves. In the end something like only 3% of all Cowbirds survive past the nesting stage. 

Two of them are in my backyard. Damn it. 

Male Mourning Dove watching nearby

Female Mourning Dove possibly about to hatch a Cowbird


  1. When we start watching nature, we tend to root on the creatures we become attached to. We may root for the lion to catch the zebra so it can feed its cubs, or root for the zebra to get away and survive. It's all a big web of animals getting by as best they can--with hunting, or scavenging, or mimicry, or evasion. I hope it's a comfort to know that cowbirds have been around for ages and while they can affect an individual nest, I don't think they've made a dent in the overall populations of other birds.
    It may even be possible to work up sympathy for the newly hatched cowbird--whose only hope for survival is that the parents whose nest it dropped into will feed it.
    By the way, I love the label "weird-ass birds!"

    1. You're totally right! The more I'm watching all of this drama going on outside my kitchen window, the more involved I've gotten. I've been reading more about cowbirds and scientists are actually studying how the babies imprint on their own kind-- some do and some don't. It's a whole area of inquiry. (Also, there's a really funny/cool book that came through my library the other day: The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America. Take a look online. It's hilarious :)

    2. Thanks--I love that one of the 6 basic bird shapes, according to him, includes, "lump."