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MARTHA SEZ: Welcome back, parasitic birds

April 3, 2014
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

Now that it's spring in the Adirondacks, you have probably seen and heard the flocks of red-winged blackbirds and their cousins, the brown-headed cowbirds, that are congregating in the trees in our North Country neighborhoods. These little harbingers, welcome as they must be to people cooped up behind snow mounds all winter, are not always what they appear.

As you know, some scientists have stated that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. Other scientists deny this (scientists, by their very nature - or perhaps because they are forced to compete for grant money - feel honor bound to dispute among themselves) while still others take a more extreme view, insisting that birds literally are dinosaurs.

I'm no scientist, but the more I learn about birds, the more I lean toward the dinosaur position. Underneath their fluffy feathers, some birds are a rapacious lot, out for what they can get.

Take, for example, the honeyguide of Africa. These birds feed on bee larvae and beeswax, but they need help to break open wild beehives. They get their name from their habit of calling out to larger, honey-loving mammals, including humans, and then leading the way to hives they have found. After a hive is raided, the honeyguides scavenge the remains.

The honeyguide's cooperative behavior isn't so bad, you'll say. Well, maybe not. But they have some shocking proclivities, which I hate to tell you they share with a number of North American birds.

According to ornithologists - and again, I hate to have to tell you this - these birds are promiscuous. They carry on just like some humans at a singles bar, only among promiscuous birds it's the male who is out on the dance floor displaying his colorful plumage and fancy footwork. After mating, this fine-feathered freeloader takes absolutely no role in raising his young.

How then does the drab little female (ornithologists commonly refer to female birds as "drab") manage to build a nest and care for her young all by herself?

Before you start worrying and carrying on about the poor, hard-working single mother, consider this: Not only is she promiscuous, the little floozy is also what the ornithologists call a parasitic bird!

Unlike a respectable bird - a robin or a dark-eyed junco, for example - a parasitic bird doesn't even attempt to build a nest. She lays her eggs in the nests of other birds and then just flutters away without a care in the world. She is like the irresponsible Maisie in the book "Horton Hatches the Egg," by Dr. Seuss. Unlike Maisie, however, she will not return, even after the eggs are hatched. Presumably, she never gives her hatchlings a second thought, any more than she thinks about their father, or fathers. These birds are shiftless.

Now, we could all believe this of honeyguides, I'm sure, foreigners who live on another continent entirely and perhaps don't know any better. The sad truth, however, is that many of the birds we harbor at our feeders are just as bad.

Among New York's promiscuous birds are species of grouse, pheasant and yes, even some of those cute little hummingbirds.

The brown-headed cowbird - like the blackbird, a member of the troupial family - is New York's only parasitic bird. Don't bother looking for a cowbird nest. There is no such thing. The female lays her eggs in other birds' nests, allowing the "good" birds to raise her young. She lays about a dozen eggs during the season, usually one egg per nest. More than 200 species find cowbird eggs in their nests.

Some, including the robin, cedar waxwing and blue jay, refuse to put up with it. They practice tough love by rejecting the alien eggs.

The red-winged blackbird, mourning dove and goldfinch, on the other hand, will care for the intruder in the nest, often to the detriment of their own young. Maybe these avian do-gooders are simply ignorant. Perhaps they are well-meaning, imagining that they perform a public service by coddling cow-hatchlings. The sorry truth is that they only encourage bad behavior.

It is regrettable, in these times when family values are under attack on every front among the human population, that our birds - birds we have long regarded as paragons of domestic virtue - are allowed to behave in such an unseemly manner right in our own back yards. I was thinking of buying some binoculars for bird watching. Not anymore. If this is the way birds are behaving, I don't want to see it.

Have a good week.



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