Unreal Nature

April 17, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:59 am


The bird in this picture is a brown headed cowbird. They are one of my favorites; they’re elegant, stylish and very expressive.

Here (below) is a female. Also beautiful in a lovely understated but equally elegant way.


Gorgeous. However, many people, or probably most people despise them. I have a neighbor, a woman whom I consider a friend. She’s a nice (otherwise) peaceful animal-loving person — who shoots cowbirds on sight. (She has an air-gun and claims to be a very good shot.)

Here is why people hate brown headed cowbirds: they are brood parasites. That means that, like cuckoos, they lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds and this often results in the death of those birds’ own offspring. Brown headed cowbird’s lay their eggs in the nests of more than 220 host species. Host-parasite interactions are summarized on Wikipedia, as follows:

Egg rejection

Host parents may sometimes easily notice the cowbird egg, to which different host species react in different ways. Rejection manifests in three forms: nest desertion (e.g., Blue-gray Gnatcatcher), burying of the egg under nest material (e.g., Yellow Warbler)[4], and physical ejection of the egg from the nest (e.g., Brown Thrasher).[5] Brown-headed cowbird nestlings are sometimes expelled from the nest.

Unsuitable diet

The House Finch feeds its young a vegetarian diet, which is unsuitable for young Brown-headed Cowbirds. Although the Brown-headed Cowbird eggs laid in a House Finch nest will hatch, almost none survive to fledge.[6]

Parasite response

It seems that Brown-headed Cowbirds periodically check on their eggs and young after they have deposited them. Removal of the parasitic egg may trigger a retaliatory reaction termed “mafia behavior”. According to a study by the Florida Museum of Natural History published in 1983, the cowbird returned to ransack the nests of a range of host species in 56% of the time when their egg was removed. In addition, the cowbird also destroyed nests in a type of “farming behavior” to force the hosts to build new ones. The cowbirds then laid their eggs in the new nests 85% of the time.

That’s why people hate brown headed cowbirds. They claim it’s a morality thing, especially since it involves baby killing. I don’t think that’s the whole story. Numerous other animals and birds kill baby birds. I think cowbirds are hated because we see them as cheaters and we humans (and primates, research has shown) hate cheaters. We are always intensely sensitive to relative gain (as opposed to absolute gain).


Whatever the cause for the common moral revulsion at cowbirds, I think it’s wrong. In order for these birds to be guilty of a moral offense, they must have had the choice and the ability to do otherwise than they did. Brown headed cowbirds aren’t capable of doing (or choosing to do) anything other than what they do.

Unlike other species of animals that are hated by humans, these birds aren’t scary; they don’t threaten us in any way; they don’t harm our property or carry diseases. They aren’t an invasive species; the birds that they parasitize have been living with them through the ages and they’re in stable equilibrium, host and parasite.


I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with thinking of and using animals (or vegetables or minerals) metaphorically in art, literature, or mythology. But this, along with the pervasive use of talking animals in children’s books, movies and TV (which I’ll admit I enjoy), seems to cause many people, whether they are aware of it or not, to end up thinking of animals as being, at root, like us. Animals may be stupider or childlike, but their motivations and thought-processes are believed to be of the same “kind,” if not the same quality, as ours. They seem to perceive things as we do (eyes, ears, touch, etc.); they seem to often act/respond like us, therefore they must be “like us.” This applies to both animal-lovers and animal-haters. This results in distorted interpretations of animal needs and attribution of blame or credit.

It would be far more rational, respectful, loving to understand and accept animals on their own terms, not on ours.

For more on anthropomorphism (which my post title, anthropo-moralism is a play on), see Wikipedia. And, for a laugh, see The Onion.

An addendum to the above:

By chance, just a few days ago, I had a brown thrasher appear on my feeding/photographing area. I had caught a glimpse of it a few days before, but that was the only time I’d seen one there. It was odd because I don’t think they eat seeds. Anyway, when he showed up in front of my camera, there was a big gang of cowbirds already feeding. I got six good shots of him (and one tail shot — he didn’t fit in the frame), after which all hell broke loose with the cowbirds. At the time, I thought they had attacked him, but, now I realize that he was probably there, not for the bird seed but in order to attack the cowbirds himself (the thrasher is quite a bit bigger than a cowbird). This picture is just before he left — my eighth and probably last ever thrasher photo. (See this reference that says host birds attack cowbirds.)


(This thrasher photo also shows how close I am. A 300mm lens at about eight feet won’t fit this bird into the frame. I’ve cropped the left and right sides, but that’s the full height I can get. He popped his head up; I didn’t move the camera quick enough to get the top of his head.)

I love cowbirds. I accept them as they are. I wish others would too.




1 Comment

  1. The clip was fine; haven’t read the book

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 19, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

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