Wildlife Lesson-Who’s Your Momma?

baby cowbird5

“I have a mother,” said the baby bird.

“I know I do.

I will find her.

I will. I WILL!”

~P. D. Eastman, Are You My Mother?



One day this summer, I was looking out on the garden as I had heard a bit of chattering that told me baby birds were about….or I should say fledglings or newly fledged birds.  As I looked, I spied a new arrival on the patio….a common landing area where we see many new fledglings rest and explore until they get their courage up to take another flight.



As I watched this babe (you could tell he was newly fledged as he hardly had a tail and hebaby cowbird2 was sporting baby feathers still, here and there), I thought to myself that I had never seen this type of baby bird before.  Certainly too big for a sparrow, and not quite right for a red-winged blackbird.



The babe was definitely curious taking in his surroundings, wandering on the step of the patio and seeking out seeds.  He hopped about, but always kept one eye on the sky as he cried a bit to be fed.



baby cowbird4As I was still trying to figure out who this was, another bird swooped down.  It was a smaller song sparrow.  I thought nothing of it until, the sparrow approached the baby bird, and suddenly fed the big baby bird.  Immediately the lightbulb in my brain went on, and I knew immediately who our visitor was; a fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird.



Now if you don’t know, cowbirds are one of the few birds who do not build a nest.  Instead they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.  I always found it fascinating that these birds laid eggs, and left the care and upbringing of the egg and baby to other birds much like a foster care program for birds.



I have read many birds are not amused with this behavior by the cowbirds, and baby cowbirdwill destroy the eggs if they notice them in the nest.  Song sparrow and cowbird eggs are very similar in appearance so it is no wonder they are duped into thinking the egg is theirs.  It must be quite tight in the nest though with the baby cowbird, as they are double the size of baby sparrows.



The sparrow fed the baby cowbird there on the patio for a while and then they were off to the trees and others areas in the garden more protected and remote.  As they flew off, I marveled at this scene that had played out before me, and how these stories give me pause to reflect about our own human race.  Perhaps we could take a page from nature and try to work more in harmony helping each other without question and prejudice.  It’s a dream!




baby cowbird3

Here are some interesting facts about Brown-headed Cowbirds:

  • The female cowbird usually chooses an open cup-nest to lay one egg.
  • The female will wait until the host bird has at least one egg in its nest, many times removing an egg from the nest before laying her own.
  • Female cowbirds will continue to lay one egg at a time for about a month, and can lay up to 40 eggs in host nests.  That’s a lot of cowbirds.
  • The incubation of cowbird eggs is short taking typically 10 to 12 days, thus allowing the young cowbird to get a head start in the nest.
  • Young cowbirds grow quickly, which gives them a competitive edge for food over the other young in the nest.
  • Young cowbirds will also leave the nest quickly usually after 8 to 13 days.
  • It takes the young cowbirds quite a long time to become fully independent from their host parents, about 25 to 39 days.
  • Once they become independent they will form small flocks with other juvenile cowbirds and juvenile birds in general.
  • The care for the cowbird from egg to independent juvenile is usually at the expense of the host bird’s other young, as the cowbird is bigger and grows faster thereby giving it food and attention more than the host bird’s young ones.



baby robin collage

This summer we have witnessed many fledglings in and around the garden especially baby robins.  No robins nested in the garden this year, preferring the undisturbed abandoned house next door.  And it appears our crazy robin momma had a couple of small broods as we saw her feeding babies weeks apart.


This babe flew to the arbor and stayed there for quite a while as it took in its surroundings.  It was quite content to stay put for more than an hour waiting for its parent to come and feed it.




young robin

I spied him, or a sibling, a few weeks later in the garden searching for food and not far from his parents still.



With this wildlife story, I am joining in the meme Wildlife Wednesday hosted by Tina@My Gardener Says that happens the first Wednesday of every month, and with Saturday’s Critters hosted by Eileen@Viewing nature with Eileen that happens every Saturday.  I am also linking in withMichelle@Rambling Woods for her Nature Notes meme.  It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every week.



And I am sharing this lesson with Beth@PlantPostings for her wonderful Garden Lessons Learned meme.  I hope you will join her.  Please check out all these great blogs.



Also as the equinox approaches, please join me at my garden blog, Gardens Eye View,  for my quarterly meme, Seasonal Celebrations. There you can find all the details for linking up to this celebration of the coming of the new seasons around the world.




I leave you with another thought about the lessons I am learning from nature.  Feel free to download the photo and share.

baby bird

All original content is copyrighted and the sole property of Donna Donabella @ Living From Happiness, 2014-15.  Any reprints or use of content or photos is by permission only.

29 Replies to “Wildlife Lesson-Who’s Your Momma?”

  1. I have never heard of these birds before, but the UK cuckoo does a similar thing and what a clever idea… leaving your kids to the care of someone else to feed and bring up for you! Who’d have thought it. It made me smile as we have a constant stream of really gorgeous young people here who turn up here for weeks and months, whilst on some overseas adventure… I’ve always said we should all swap kids as bringing up someone else’s offspring is far easier than your own!!! The only problem the world over is they all certainly eat you out of house and home, poor mother sparrow! Loved this post and great photos.
    Wren x

    1. I love that your cuckoo is similar. I believe there are other cowbirds around the world that do this as well…relatives of our cowbird….amazing concept…glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. I do feel sorrow at the idea of so many Momma birds being duped into caring for cowbirds at the expense of their own young. Thinking about this a little more however, I wonder if the Momma Birds are anything other than impressed (and potentially a little overworked keeping up) with the rapid growth of those Very Big Babies. And the cowbirds, never experience parenting through fledging and beyond. They are missing out on what we humans consider a miraculous transition, though how could they know?

    Lovely photos, evocative and provocative as usual. Great post!

  3. This is an amazing post in all ways. What photos you have captured! And such an education in the miraculous lives of birds. While working at the Audubon Society, I learned about Cowbirds, but had never seen one up close and had certainly never seen one being fed by its surrogate mother. Nature is astonishing, isn’t it? I wonder how the Cowbird–in its struggle for survival like all living creatures–came upon this strategy which does seem so unfair! Yet, we know that animals will care for the young of another, we’ve seen it in so many species.

    Donna, I can’t recall if I shared my post for your lessons learned meme, so I’ll add it again here: http://www.life-change-compost.com/the-fabulous-fly-and-her-farm-family/ It is simply a peek into the struggle that one woman has, with her six working dogs, to maintain a large farm after the death of her husband last year. Elissa, at Magnolia Farm, rears Border Collies and trains them for work in the fields with her hundreds of sheep. There is a really interesting video of life on the farm within the post (wait for the first 30 sec. of a lamb recipe to go by!) Again the theme is life and death, which seems to be *my* lesson, both this year and last. We are all part of one family. As the poet Elissa quotes says: “Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings. They are creatures, like ourselves, caught in this web of life and time.” Henry Beston

    1. The cowbirds visit the garden in spring and then are gone by mid summer. I also wonder how these birds came upon this strategy. I’ll be checking out your post soon Susan….looking forward to it and I love the quote!

  4. Terrific post, Donna–thanks for sharing. The cowbirds (and I’m sure others, like the cuckoo in the UK) have developed a clever adaptation that certainly insures their survival. I know here in Central Texas, they’re a problem for one of the threatened warbler species (as is the gas and oil industry–but that’s another conversation), Still, your post is a good reminder of the remarkable strategies employed by species for their survival. Great photos–I especially love that last one of the young robin–so pensive and charming.

    1. I can see how they could threaten another species of bird because they lay so many eggs and destroy so many of the host’s eggs….glad you enjoyed the story Tina!

  5. Over here we have the Cuckoo bird who behave in the same way. Interesting to wonder why Mother Nature designed these birds to be brought up by other parents. Lovely photos Donna. Your garden sounds a great place to be a fledgling. I really like the poster at the end of your post too, great saying.

  6. People around here try to chase the cowbirds away so they won’t lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t do anything about it, thinking it will all balance out and better for this to happen with more common birds than the endangered ones. You’ve probably already seen it, but this page has great information about them, including their contribution to the decline of some species: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown-headed_cowbird/lifehistory. Great post! Thanks for joining in the “lessons learned” meme. 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. That is one of my favorite websites so thanks for sharing it Beth….we do have a small number of cowbirds in spring, but this is the first baby I have seen. And we seem to have more of a House Sparrow problem with overpopulation and taking nesting spots from native species.

  7. Hello Donna, what a great post on the baby Cow bird. I am sure I have a few around here, I was seeing the adult Cowbrds in the spring. Great information and I love the Touhy quote! Thank you for linking up and sharing your post. Have a happy day and new week ahead!

  8. I am thrilled this year..I didn’t see one song sparrow., cardinal or chipping sparrow feeding a cow bird as I do often do… This is a wonderful post to learn more about them… Michelle

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