I am a member of the Troupial Family of birds — a diverse family named for gathering in large flocks, or troupes. Members of my family include blackbirds, grackles, orioles, meadowlarks and a few others.

I am smaller than a cardinal but larger than a house finch. I can be found throughout most of the United States and much of Canada — in fields, farms, wood's edge, thickets, residential areas and open habitats. I'm not fond of the deep forest. During the winter months my kind and me gather in large flocks and roost with other blackbirds and starlings. We are known to be noisy birds at times — especially when we are gathered in flocks of hundreds or even thousands. That's quite a party!


As a male, my song is a gurgling one and my call is like a whistle. My mate is not a singer, and when she calls, she is more chatter than whistle.

We forage mostly on the ground and often with other birds. We're the ones with our tails cocked up. We eat lots of seed — grasses and weeds — and feast on insects, too.

The female and I are not monogamous and therefore may have several partners in a season. My mate (of the moment) lays white eggs with brown speckles, but we do not build a nest. She lays her eggs in the nests of other species and never looks back. We expect these other birds to foster our offspring!

John K. Terres in his Encyclopedia of North American Birds says that we are obligatory nest parasites — meaning that we are developmentally unable to build nests and nurture our own young. That is why we put our eggs in the nests of other birds so that they will raise our youngsters.

The female of my species sneaks around in the wee hours of the morning and lays her egg in the nest of another bird while the parent is absent. Sometimes she deposits her egg even before the nest builder has laid one of her own. It's not unusual for my partner to distribute 20 or more eggs in a season — but not more than one per nest. Not all of them are accepted and not all survive.

Often our eggs are larger than those of the host bird. My partner's eggs tend to hatch a little earlier than the host eggs, which gives our foster babies an advantage. They grow larger faster and often crowd out the baby birds that are supposed to be there.

But not all species are willing to accept our eggs and foster the young birds. Sometimes the "alien" eggs are detected by the host birds and rejected. Some species, like cardinals, are large enough to push the uninvited eggs from their nests. Others may totally abandon their nests, including their own eggs, and build a new nest because it's the only way they can reject the unfamiliar eggs. A few will spurn the unwelcome egg by building a new nest right over the old one.

But many birds don't seem to recognize that a strange egg has been dropped into their nests — or don't seem to mind as many species have fostered these young birds to adulthood. Unfortunately, at least some of the young of the host species suffer when their parents accept the responsibility of raising the uninvited nestlings.

Look at me! I am the male of my species and can be easily recognized by my glossy black body and solid brown head. My bill is finch-like and dark. My legs and feet are black. My mate is a plain-looking brownish-gray bird with a light throat.

I have been called Buffalo Bird because in the early days my range was limited to the Great Plains, and I was often seen foraging in the fields with buffalo and bison. I have also been referred to as Lazy Bird because I don't build a nest for my own family.

Have you guessed my real name by now? I am the Brown-headed Cowbird.

Author's note: Do you wonder how all the young cowbirds figure out who they are and where they are supposed to go after they fledge? How do they find each other? How do they know to look for each? I sure do.