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Least Concern (LC)
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The Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is a small brood parasitic icterid of temperate to subtropical North America. They are permanent residents in the southern parts of their range; northern birds migrate to the southern United States and Mexico in winter, returning to their summer habitat around March or April.
The Brown-headed Cowbird is typical for an icterid in general shape but is distinguished by a finch-like head and beak and is smaller than most icterids. The adult male is iridescent black in color with a brown head. The adult female is slightly smaller and is dull grey with a pale throat and very fine streaking on the underparts. The total length is and the average wingspan is . Body mass can range from , with females averaging against the males' average of .
They occur in open or semi-open country and often travel in flocks, sometimes mixed with Red-winged Blackbirds (particularly in spring) and Bobolinks (particularly in fall), as well as Common Grackle or European Starlings. These birds forage on the ground, often following grazing animals such as horses and cows to catch insects stirred up by the larger animals. They mainly eat seeds and insects. Before European settlement, the Brown-headed Cowbird followed bison herds across the prairies. Their parasitic nesting behaviour complemented this nomadic lifestyle. Their numbers expanded with the clearing of forested areas and the introduction of new grazing animals by settlers across North America. Brown-headed Cowbirds are now commonly seen at suburban birdfeeders.
This bird is a brood parasite: it lays its eggs in the nests of other small passerines (perching birds), particularly those that build cup-like nests. The Brown-headed Cowbird eggs have been documented in nests of at least 220 host species, including hummingbirds and raptors. The young cowbird is fed by the host parents at the expense of their own young. Brown-headed Cowbird females can lay 36 eggs in a season. More than 140 different species of birds are known to have raised young cowbirds. Unlike the Common Cuckoo, it has no gentes whose eggs imitate those of a particular host. Some species, such as the House Finch feed their young a vegetarian diet. This is unsuitable for young Brown-headed Cowbirds, meaning almost none survive to fledge.
The acceptance of a cowbird egg and rearing of a cowbird can be costly to a host species. In the American Redstart, nests parasitized by cowbirds were found to have a higher rate of predation, likely due in part to the loud begging calls by the cowbird nestling, but also partly explained by the fact that nests likely to be parasitized are also more likely to be predated. Host birds sometimes notice the cowbird egg, to which different host species react in different ways. Rejection manifests in three forms: nest desertion (e.g., Blue-gray Gnatcatcher), burying of the egg under nest material (e.g., Yellow Warbler), and physical ejection of the egg from the nest (e.g., Brown Thrasher). Brown-headed cowbird nestlings are also sometimes expelled from the nest. The Gray catbird rejects cowbird eggs over 95% of the time; experimentation has suggested that in this species, the cost of accepting an egg is much higher (0.79 catbird fleglings) than the cost of rejecting an egg(0.0022 catbird fledglings). Nestlings of host species can also alter their behavior in response to the presence of a cowbird nestling. Song sparrow nestlings in parasitized nests alter their vocalizations in frequency and amplitude so that they resemble the cowbird nestling, and these nestlings tend to be fed equally often as nestlings in unparasitized nests.
It seems that Brown-headed Cowbirds periodically check on their eggs and young after they have deposited them. Removal of the parasitic egg may trigger a retaliatory reaction termed "mafia behavior". According to a study by the Florida Museum of Natural History published in 1983, the cowbird returned to ransack the nests of a range of host species 56% of the time when their egg was removed. In addition, the cowbird also destroyed nests in a type of "farming behavior" to force the hosts to build new ones. The cowbirds then laid their eggs in the new nests 85% of the time.
Humans sometimes engage in cowbird control programs, with the intention of protecting species negatively impacted by the cowbirds' brood parasitism. A study of nests of Bell's Vireo highlighted a potential limitation of these control programs, demonstrating that removal of cowbirds from a site may create an unintended consequence of increasing cowbird productivity on that site, because with fewer cowbirds, fewer parasitized nests are deserted, resulting in greater nest success for cowbirds.