Tag Archives: brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)

But they don’t look like cows

I sat this afternoon watching a brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) sing from atop my neighbor’s car.  It reminded me of these photos.  So I figured I might as well share.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in grass (2009_06_03_021982)

Cowbirds are nest parasites and their growing population puts increased pressure on the reproductive success of other species.  This usually means people hate them, somewhat like they hate house sparrows and European starlings.

A male and a female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) walking together through the grass (2009_06_03_021993)

But I don’t hate them.  Well, let’s be honest: other than sweet potatoes and yams, I don’t hate anything nature has to offer.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) perched on a tree branch (2009_04_11_014932)

Besides, have you ever heard cowbirds sing?  What melodious voices!  What beautiful songs!

A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in grass as he eats (2009_06_03_021820)

Oh, and the whole idea of nest parasitism is cool.  Since cowbirds evolved to follow herds of bison across the continent, they don’t stop to build nests but instead lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.  Their young even developed a tendency to push other hatchlings and eggs out of the nest to increase their chance of survival.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in grass (2009_04_11_014938)

And being black birds means they match my affinity for the underdog.  Grackles, crows and ravens, blackbirds…  They just don’t get respect, which makes me like them even more.  They’re worth noticing more than they’re worth hating.

A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) standing in tall grass (2009_06_03_021987)

It’s interesting to note that cowbirds are succeeding because we’ve made it hard for them to fail.  We mowed down all the forests and built vast swaths of open fields coupled with plenty of cattle.  That created a perfect environment for them.

Why birds?

When I began the process of purging my photo collection, essentially sweeping away the past to make room for the future, I started with birds, something you’ll see in this post and others to follow.

But why birds?

A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) molting into eclipse plumage (20080628_08107)

Good question.

I have a lot of bird pictures.  Yet that’s not really the answer to the question.

A complete albino rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) walking into the grass (20080628_07967)

I think I began with birds since our avian friends offer a mix of challenge and ease that results in a veritable bounty of images.

Then again, perhaps I complicate matters when a simpler answer would more appropriately address the question.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) with a small fish in its bill (20080614_06582)

While I could say it’s because I love birds almost as much as I love insects, even that would not provide the full truth of why I started with our avian friends.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) perched in a treetop (20080518_05644)

It all boils down to this one fact: it’s winter.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) in the grass (20080426_04903)

Even here in North Texas, winter means an end to the bounty of arthropods and flora and reptiles and a great deal of nature’s many wonders.  Most trees are left stark and barren along with the vast majority of plants as they wither into their cocoons of hibernation or death; cold-blooded creatures fade with the passing seasons into a frigid slumber or the end of their generation; insects and arachnids shrink away beneath the blanket of the first killing freeze; and ultimately most of the beauty I so enjoy disappears under winter’s cloak.

Yet birds thrive, at least where I live, and their numbers and kinds explode as residents leave for warmer days and nights at the same time migrants arrive trying to escape colder temperatures to the north.

A scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) perched in a tree (20080426_04717)

So expunging historic photos of birds came naturally since, right now, I’m snapping a lot of bird pictures.

It’s no more complicated than that.  Besides, I have yet to go through the arthropods, plants, mammals and reptiles that comprise the remainder of my collection.  Rest assured they will have their time in the spotlight.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] A male wood duck (Aix sponsa) who’s molting into eclipse plumage.  He wanted to know who and what I was, but his curiosity never won the battle it waged with his sense of self-preservation.  Instead, he followed me along the north shore of White Rock Lake, always staying near enough to keep an eye on me whilst simultaneously being distant enough to feel safe.

[2] A complete albino rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia).  I have seen partial albinism, incomplete albinism and imperfect albinism in rock doves (along with many other creatures), but this was the first time I ever saw complete albinism in this species.  It foraged and flocked with the dule, yet it stood out like a lone redwood tree in a hayfield.

[3] A snowy egret (Egretta thula) with a small fish in its bill.  This beautiful creature spent the morning wading in the shallows of Sunset Bay looking for something to eat.  I watched it miss more meals than I could count.  Just when I felt the poor thing would go hungry, it caught a small fish and enjoyed the fruit of its labor.

[4] A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).  Perched in the top of a tree under which I stood unaware of its presence, this marvelous parent watched me intently as its offspring fledged a few steps away.  I absentmindedly moved toward the child, and it was then the dutiful guard made its presence known with a sweeping dive at my head coupled with the scream of a marauder moving in for the kill.  I snapped the photo as I moved away.

[5] A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater).  On a cloudy day and from quite a distance, I felt certain this was nothing more than a sparrow (albeit a large-than-normal sparrow).  Bad lighting can often hide the difference what is and what isn’t.  I walked away from that moment feeling she was something else entirely, something boring, so I was thrilled I took the photo as it brought into focus what I had really seen.

[6] A scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus).  I watched this individual and one other as they performed their magical aerial ballet in the light of sunrise.  Catching insects in flight is neat enough on its own; doing so with that flowing, unbelievably long tail creates an altogether different image.

Birds I never knew – Part 2

Staring into the sun trying to locate a distant voice.  Seeing a bit of shadow swimming through woodlands.  Driving along while trying to snap a photo of something resting atop a building.

Being prepared has little to do with successfully capturing an image when the subject and circumstances conspire against me.

I try, though.  Oh how I try…

Two male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) perched on a makeshift bird feeder (20080414_03459)

Two male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).  An old deer stand at the family farm quickly transformed into a makeshift bird feeder.  The blue plastic tray hanging above the ground is filled each day with birdseed, and that beckons to a variety of winged beasts who visit from dawn to dusk—and probably well into the night.

A male belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) hiding in tree limbs (20080114_01128)

A male belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  His raucous cry had me searching high and low trying to find him.  Much to my dismay, he flitted from tree to tree as I ran along some distance away attempting to follow him.  Finally realizing I would never get close enough for a respectable photo, I took aim despite not being able to see if I was or was not focused on the right tree.

A pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) floating on the surface of White Rock Lake (20080405_02986)

A pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps).  Cunning little creatures, these grebes.  They disappear beneath the water’s surface if they perceive a threat.  When they return to the surface, they can be one to three meters/yards away from where they vanished.  I hurried along the shore of White Rock Lake trying to snap a photo of this critter as it continually dove out of sight only to pop up in random directions and distances from where I lost sight of it.

An American black vulture (a.k.a. black vulture; Coragyps atratus) perched atop a hospital (20080511_05173)

An American black vulture (a.k.a. black vulture; Coragyps atratus).  Driving home one afternoon, I spied this beautiful bird preening in the bright sunshine.  Attempting to navigate Dallas’s busy streets while holding a camera out the window to snap photos is not something I recommend for the faint of heart.  Oh, and this irony was not lost on me at that time or when I viewed these images later: the vulture was sitting atop a hospital.

A white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica) perched in the treetops (IMG_20080105_00703)

A white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).  During my first visit to the Audubon park near White Rock Lake’s spillway, I stood in a ravine with dense woodlands all around me as a spirited creek bubbled along on its journey to larger waterways.  In the dim light of predawn hours, I heard more than saw a bird land in the treetops quite a way from where I stood.  I snapped a few photos despite the distance and despite not knowing what kind of bird it was.

A male hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) clinging to the side of a tree trunk (IMG_20071230_00641)

A male hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus).  Its size and its beak differentiated this common animal from the downy woodpeckers that also inhabit the area.  The rat-tat-tat knocking in the treetops above me drew my attention as I walked home from the lake, and against the contrast of wintry limbs and bright sky I nearly gave up trying to capture an image so high up from such a disadvantaged position far below.

[Prev | Home | Next

Farm life – Part I

Hidden away in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the family farm can be exhausting at its worst and magical at its best.  Plenty of hard work awaits those who tend its chores and care for its animals, yet the surroundings provide ample nature in which to wallow, not to mention the resident population of family critters who offer up joys beyond compare.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) around a feeder at the family farm (139_3998)

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are ubiquitous around Big Cypress Bayou in all but the cold months.  Mom keeps several feeders available for them, each carefully and diligently supplied with sugar water, and so the hummingbirds come year after year, their antics providing hours of entertainment.

In fact, Mom often stands outside holding one of the feeders right next to her face.  As soon as the birds realize she’s not a threat, they begin visiting, buzzing around her head and brushing her cheeks with their wings.  It’s more than fantastic, more than beautiful; it’s divine to see.

Adult and juvenile cows roaming through one of the pastures at the family farm (194_9494)

Even the cows enjoy roaming from pasture to pasture, some fields cloaked by dense woodlands drawing a barrier around them and others set within those very same woodlands.  A serenity befalls the place no matter where one looks.

When calves are about, fun spills over the grass like so much rich honey.  Large enough to hurt you if they ran you down, these little guys spring and leap in ways that puppies and kittens would envy, and it doesn’t hurt that the mothers always have a fresh drink of milk with them at all times.  It can get pretty hot in Texas, so a bit of play is always followed by a rapid search for and happy reunion with mom—then a tasty bit of nourishment and energy for more play.

A Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) resting on the ground in the main yard of the family farm (214_1441)

Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) dance in the main yard, flitting about with abandon as though they had not a care in the world.  They appreciate this place.  At times the yard reminds me of a field of waltzing flames as a dozen or more of these butterflies converge.

The farm boasts a magnificent insect population that ranges from giant moths to giant beetles, from katydids and grasshoppers to spiders and wasps.  The air is often filled with dragonflies and butterflies, and with leaping grasshoppers and katydids, not to mention the chorus of a thousand species.  Only in winter do these sights and sounds disappear, a lonely echo creating a void they once filled and will fill again.

Purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glories; Ipomoea trichocarpa) growing alongside one of the pastures at the family farm (214_1442)

Purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glories; Ipomoea trichocarpa) offers up perfume and lavender beauty, flowers fully open in acceptance of morning sunshine.  Like so many other wildflowers, this stunning plant, considered a weed by so many, grows readily along paths and trails running throughout the farm.  There can never be too much life here.

Wild berries grow on the hillside in a pool of varied briers, grasses and flowers.  Dense woodlands stretch across rolling hills with pine, hickory, oak, ash, dogwood and magnolia trees defining the landscape, each skirted with an assortment of brush sometimes too thick for the average walk.  Cypress grows along the bayou and its tributaries.  Just north of the only natural lake in all of Texas, the area gives rise to springs and marshes that dot the landscape like a patchwork of wonders.  In fact, no one has been able to count the number of springs on the farm because they are so numerous.

A cow sticking its tongue out hoping my mother will give just one more treat (216_1650)

Then there are the treats, the special goodies that deserve kisses—even if from a cow.  Always listening for Mom’s voice, these domestic giants lavish themselves in the affection and care they receive.  In fact, they call out to her—rather loudly, I might add—if they believe she’s late to visit.

But Mom is not the only one who enjoys such special attention.  Dad happens to be the person who gives them maple, a sweet, delectable goody for which they mob him like children begging for candy.  He’s forced to push and shove his way through a herd of drooling mouths and suppliant scroungers desperate to smell the scent and taste the flavor of nutritious yet obviously addictive syrup applied generously to hay.

A cow sticking its head through the fence with a wanting, begging look on its face (216_1660)

And the looks of wanting mixed with cuteness as bovines beg and plead for just one more taste of heaven leaves us simple humans laughing with pure delight.  They know a good thing and waste no time putting on the Oliver act: “Please, may I have some more?”

An eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) arriving at the nest with food for its young (20080414_03434)

Joining the various farm animals is a contingent of wildlife.  Nesting in an old can wired to the utility shed because their house had been invaded by wasps, eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) rear their young with a diligence all of us at the farm notice.  Both mother and father spend their days bringing food to always hungry, always talkative young hiding away until it’s their time to fledge.  One need only walk out the side door to see this spectacle across the main yard.

Male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) perched atop a pine tree (20080414_03445)

Meanwhile, male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) gather atop a pine tree to plan their day.  Looking for mates and planning nest invasions undoubtedly requires a group effort.  Along with these avians can be found a litany of birdwatching gifts, from egrets to cardinals to flycatchers to hawks to owls to a plethora of winged beasts both great and small.  It’s not uncommon to see vultures flying low overhead as a hawk circles in the clouds.  The fact that Mom provides food for many bird species helps draw them in like clockwork, various groups and individuals visiting the feeders throughout the day as though scheduled in shifts to arrive and depart at preset times.

Those who don’t indulge in such handouts still surround the farm as they live out their lives in a vast wilderness that reaches through four states.  One need only stop, look and listen to enjoy a dynamic show of feathers.  And if the local population isn’t enough, my parents have a close friend who happens to lead the local bird banding efforts.  What might only be an unidentified shadow seen peripherally at other times suddenly rears up as large as life when a beautiful morning is spent identifying, cataloging, banding and enjoying the always surprising abundance of these creatures.

[To be continued…]