Brown-headed Cowbird — What’s the Problem?

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I came across a small flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds recently while driving through high desert at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains near the town of Oracle. They seemed to be using the dead stalk of an agave plant as a base, coming and going and perching on the plant.

Cowbirds are members of the blackbird family. They are a common species: their year-round range includes the lower two-thirds of the United States. In summer, these birds can be found, not only in their permanent range, but in the northern United States and much of Canada as well.

I admit, they are not the most exciting of species, with their dull brown heads and necks and mostly black bodies. However, I was a bit intrigued with these individuals. Normally, I see cowbirds in settled areas, hanging around near the barns and outbuildings of farms and ranches. I hadn’t expected to see these birds out in the desert. I decided to make a few images.

Nothing particularly interesting was going on as I began photographing the birds. However, suddenly, one of them became extremely agitated, giving me a display of flashing wings and spread tail.

It persisted in this highly agitated state for several seconds.

I’m certainly no expert in cowbird behavior but I can hazard a guess as to what might have been going on. It was breeding season for these birds when I photographed them. During breeding season several male cowbirds will pursue a female and vie for her attention. My guess is that this individual was putting on a display, either to attract a female, or to ward off competing males.

The episode reminded me of a lesson that I’ve learned over years of wildlife photography. No species is really boring. Even with a seemingly mundane species one must be prepared, because something exciting may be just around the corner.

Images made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm f4 DO II lens + Canon EF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1250, f9 @ 1/2000, + 1 stop exposure compensation.

One Reply to “Brown-headed Cowbird — What’s the Problem?”

  1. rebelbreeze says:

    Great comment and photos thanks.

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