This junco dad (right) is raising a much bigger cowbird baby. Cowbirds are called brood parasites because the mother will lay her egg in another species nest, displacing a host egg, then disappear and let the foster parents do all the work. A cowbird egg usually hatches in less time than other birds and the baby gets bigger faster and starves out the other nestlings.
The junco dad in these pictures has been feeding this fledgling for a week, as well as the weeks it was in the nest. He is getting tired of the constant pestering for food. Although he takes his responsibility seriously and continues to feed, he occasionally takes a lunge at the baby. The cowbird should be self feeding by now but there is a problem - the upper mandible is too short. It stops just after the nostrils. He can't pick up seeds. It's like eating with one and a half chopsticks. I've been waiting to see if he would adapt and figure out some other workaround but so far begging is his main solution. There is seed on the ground as well as the feeders and yesterday he learned that it is easier to eat from the ground than from the hard surface of the feeders because he can push his lower beak in a bit until the upper mandible can grab a grain of millet, so he is adapting. The father, after a week, has stopped feeding him and now the cowbird must figure out how to live life with this mutation.
Although cowbirds have a bad reputation and people dislike them, I can't blame the baby for the negligence of the parents, although I know this bird will grow up to copy the behaviour that is so frowned upon. Other species of birds rob nests and eat other birds and we don't think they are terrible. I think with cowbirds we put our own social mores on them. They are not monogamous and they do not stick around to raise their young so we judge them. They used to follow the buffalo herds and were transient so they couldn't stay in one place long enough to raise a brood. Snubby is alive and at my feeder and is interesting. I'm not going to wring his neck so I may as well enjoy him. And I got a blog post and a few of decent photos out of this cowbird's dilemma and his long suffering junco dad.
-several days later- Snubby is eating seeds from standing grass. I sprinkle food on the ground for him. He hangs out with the chickens now and is not afraid of me, probably because he was raised just four feet away from me at my window feeder so he is used to my movements. He's always around and looks me in the eye while I talk to him. He spotted his dad today and went to him begging but got chased off. The dad has cut the cord and Snubby is on his own. He looks like a female at this point but they usually do when they are young so it's hard to tell. I will continue to call it a he.
-another day passes- I am now under constant surveillance. At 6am there his is peering in the window. I go outside and he follows two feet behind. I am accompanied to the outhouse. Yesterday I was napping in my reclining lawn chair and Snubby perched on my knee. He flies from window to window following my movements through the house. He is too short to see in the door so he stands on the step and jumps up to window level again and again like he's on a trampoline. This is all because I tossed him three meal worms yesterday. Since then he has had about 15 more. I'm rationing them because he needs to find food on his own and also the meal worms will run out and I am afraid he will then feast on my eyeballs. He waits on a shelf by the door outside and when I open the door there he is ready for his treat. He learned so fast. Birds are such sharp cookies.
- next day - A cat killed Snubby. Broke my heart.
Jay Rainey is an artist living on an island in British Columbia, Canada.