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A photo of a Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), male
Brown-headed Cowbird, Male

Brown-headed Cowbird

Molothrus ater

The brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) is a small icterid, notable for its brood parasitic behavior. Males are distinguished by their glossy black plumage and a rich brown head, while females are more subdued in color, presenting a dull grey with fine streaking and a paler throat. They measure between 16 to 22 centimeters in length, with a wingspan averaging 36 centimeters.

Identification Tips

To identify the male brown-headed cowbird, look for the striking contrast between the chocolate-brown head and the iridescent black body. Females are less conspicuous, with their overall grey appearance and paler underparts. Both sexes have a stout, finch-like bill suitable for their seed-based diet.

Habitat

These birds are typically found in open or semi-open landscapes. They are often seen foraging on the ground in pastures or fields, especially where cattle or horses are present, as they are adept at catching insects disturbed by these larger animals.

Distribution

Brown-headed cowbirds are native to temperate and subtropical regions of North America. They are year-round residents in the southern parts of their range, while those in the north migrate to warmer climates in the southern United States and Mexico during winter, returning around March or April.

Behaviour

The brown-headed cowbird exhibits a fascinating social structure, often seen in flocks that may include other blackbird species. They are known for their brood parasitism, laying eggs in the nests of other birds and leaving the parenting duties to the unsuspecting hosts.

Song & Calls

The vocalizations of the brown-headed cowbird are an essential aspect of their identity. Despite being raised by hosts of different species, cowbird chicks develop species-typical songs and calls, which are crucial for their integration into cowbird flocks after fledging.

Breeding

A female brown-headed cowbird may lay an astonishing number of up to 36 eggs in a single season, distributing them among the nests of various host species. This reproductive strategy, while effective for the cowbird, can be detrimental to the host species' own offspring.

Similar Species

The brown-headed cowbird can be confused with other blackbirds or grackles, but its smaller size and distinctive head color in males, as well as its unique behavior, set it apart.

Diet and Feeding

Primarily, the diet consists of seeds and insects, which they often forage for in the company of grazing animals. On occasion, they may also consume berries.

Conservation status

The IUCN Red List currently classifies the brown-headed cowbird as Least Concern, reflecting its widespread distribution and large population. However, its success as a brood parasite has raised concerns about the impact on populations of its host species.

Brown-headed Cowbird Sounds

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