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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Birds tend to be a rapacious lot, out for what they can get’

Bad birds of New York–they’re back. Now that it is early spring in the Adirondacks, flocks of red-winged blackbirds and their cousins, the brown-headed cowbirds, are congregating in the trees of our North Country neighborhoods. These little harbingers, welcome as they must be to people cooped up behind snow mounds all winter long, are not always what they appear.

As you know, some scientists have stated that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. Of course, other scientists deny this–scientists, by their very nature, feel honor bound to dispute among themselves–while still others take a more extreme view, claiming that birds ARE dinosaurs.

While I am not a scientist, the more I learn about birds, the more I lean toward the dinosaur position. Underneath their fluffy feathers, birds tend to be a rapacious lot, out for what they can get.

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

The honey guide’s cooperative hive-raiding behavior isn’t so bad, you’ll say. Well, maybe not. But they have some rather shocking proclivities, which I hate to say they share with a number of our North American birds.

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

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

Well, before you start worrying about the poor 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, for example a robin or a dark-eyed junco, 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 Mayzie in the book “Horton Hatches the Egg” by Dr. Seuss. (“Horton Hatches the Egg” is not one of the six books discontinued by Dr. Seuss Enterprises.) Unlike Mayzie, the cowbird will never return, even after the eggs are hatched. Presumably she doesn’t give them a second thought, any more than she thinks about the father, or fathers. These birds are shiftless.

Now, we could all believe this of honey guides, I’m sure, foreigners who live on another continent entirely and perhaps don’t know any better. But the sad truth is that many of the birds we harbor at our feeders are no better than they should be.

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

The brown-headed cowbird 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 from 10 to 12 eggs during a season, usually one per nest. More than 200 different bird species find cowbird eggs in their nests.

Some, including the robin, cedar waxwing and blue jay, refuse to put up with it. They reject the alien eggs and roll them right out of the nest.

The red-winged blackbird, mourning dove and goldfinch, on the other hand, will care for the intruder in the nest, often to the exclusion of their own young. Maybe these avian bleeding hearts are simply ignorant. Maybe they are misguided, 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 side among the human population, that birds–birds we have long regarded as paragons of domestic virtue–are allowed to carry on in such an unseemly manner 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.

(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the Lake Placid News for more than 20 years.)