Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Nothing Like This Ever Happened on MY Side of the Family!



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[If you'd like to see any of the following photos in larger sizes, click on them and they will open in a new window.]

I'd heard of parasitic birds before, even seen them a few times here in my back garden, but I didn't really think about the harm they can do until a few weeks ago. Parasitic birds do not carry disease; they are the lazy birds who lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds. The eggs then hatch and are raised by the host birds. In Europe a common parasitic bird is the cuckoo. Here where I live in the Sonoran Desert, the brown-headed cowbird is the culprit. This behavior allows the females to go into warp drive with egg production, laying up to 80 eggs per season in the nests of other birds. They often choose smaller songbirds, and since the foster chicks are larger and can often push the songbird chicks out of the nest, this can actually endanger certain bird populations.

Juvenile Abert's Towhee
As I said, I've often seen brown-headed cowbirds here, but didn't give them much thought until I heard the ungodly racket a young cowbird was making outside the patio door... and saw two adult Abert's Towhees coming to feed it. Abert's Towhees are large sparrows, and-- ounce for ounce-- they have more attitude and personality than many birds ten times their size. I love watching them. These birds only live here in the Sonoran Desert, and birders the world over will come here specifically to see them, so I'm thrilled that, at any one time, I have about a dozen of them here on the property.

On the left, you can see a young Abert's Towhee that still sports some baby fluff. I have to put river rocks in my pots so they won't scratch out all the dirt!

Once I'd seen the young cowbird being raised by towhees, I wanted to photograph what was going on, but it wasn't until I was in the pool one day that I could get what I wanted. The quality of the following photos is lacking because the water kept me from being perfectly still, but you can see what I'm talking about.

Two Abert's Towhees and their foster chick
Towhees are some of the bravest, smartest little birds you'll find. These two adults will explore anywhere-- including my laundry room, where they found my sealed container of niger seed... and some that was spilled on the floor the last time I'd filled the bag I hang out for the finches. The cowbird chick is incredibly demanding and noisy, much more so than towhee youngsters. They also stay with their foster parents much longer than towhee chicks do. To the right, you can see the two adults with the cowbird chick in the middle.

Feed Me!!!
Here you can see them side by side. The towhee's legs may be longer, but the birds are basically the same size. As I said, the cowbird chicks stay with their foster parents longer, and sometimes it's more than the frazzled parents can take. One evening, I saw the two adults outside the patio door. I didn't hear any racket from the cowbird and thought perhaps they'd finally booted it out of the nest. Nope. Off in the distance, I heard the familiar loud, grating complaint. One towhee ran and hid underneath the hose reel, and the other hopped up in the air and flew over the roof in the opposite direction. Poor things!

Kids are always hungry, aren't they?

Since then, I've seen a second cowbird chick being raised by towhees. I have to admit that this really fries my hide because Abert's Towhees have one of the smallest populations of any bird species in the United States. Every cowbird chick they raise probably means that there's at least one Abert's Towhee that didn't make it to adulthood.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the foster cowbirds. None of the other birds wanted anything to do with them, and I could often see them looking rather woeful and lonely. As any teenager will do when left at loose ends, they can get into mischief....

No one will play with me, so I'm going to cause trouble!

Once the adult Abert's Towhees refused to have anything else to do with this cowbird youngster, it became a juvenile delinquent before finally leaving the area. I wondered why the cactus fountain was needing to be filled much more often than usual, then I spied this young'un having fun by putting one of its feet over the hole where the water bubbles out, causing the water to shoot out in at least four streams, none of which landed in the bowl at the bottom. Little devil! 

All I have to do is watch the birds around here to be educated and entertained!

(P.S. The title of my post harkens back to an old Looney Tunes cartoon in which an inebriated stork delivers Sylvester the Cat to Mr. and Mrs. Mouse. The two mice have him in a baby carriage talking him out for an evening stroll. Needless to say, they're getting strange looks from the neighbors. Mrs. Mouse looks at Mr. Mouse and exclaims, "Nothing like this ever happened on MY side of the family!")
 


46 comments:

  1. That is so fascinating, and what very individual behaviour the birds display. We don't have either of these birds here in England although, as you say, we do have cuckoos, but I think they tend to take over nests in more rural areas, rather than gardens. My Snapshot is at http://goo.gl/qCafm

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    1. Yes, it seems to me that I have read that cuckoos tend to stay in more rural areas.

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  2. You did a great job with this photos. I love seeing different photos of birds

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    1. Thanks, Diane. I know they're not the most beautiful birds in the world! LOL

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  3. So interesting! Like a Nature special on PBS!

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  4. I love the photos and the background on the birds! I'm learning a lot about birds from book blogs!

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  5. This is so interesting. What fabulous captures.

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  6. That is really interesting, I have to admit I don't know a whole lot about different bird species. Where I live I have been seeing a lot of robin's egg shells so I am thinking the robins must have had chicks recently, although I can't recall seeing any small ones.

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    1. They can be pretty good at staying out of sight, Jill.

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  7. Cathy - Wow! I hadn't heard of "foster chicks" before. But those beautiful 'photos of yours show that it's done. How very cool!

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    1. It's interesting how nature works, isn't it? :-)

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  8. Thanks for such an informative post. I think your phtos were perfectly fine. Photographing birds is hard- these are great photos, and really help tell the story.

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  9. I love your bird photos, these were awesome and told a great story.

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  10. Love the photos and the stories about the fostering of birds. I realize that I've heard this before, but not in such wonderful detail. Thanks!

    Here's MY SATURDAY SNAPSHOT POST

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  11. What a great post. Thanks for all the info (and telling about the teenage cowbird's shenanigans).

    Here's my Snapshot.

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    1. I was glad when the little devil finally flew off for parts unknown-- I got tired of filling that fountain! LOL

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  12. I love your pics and your story. I am a backyard birder. I have seen cowbirds, sometimes quite a few in with blackbirds and grackles. Years ago when we were camping her in Canada on Lake Huron, a young cowbird adopted us, lurking around our site picking up crumbs. I had to watch I didn't step on it. It would sit on our feet when we were still, and squawk at us. It was kind of cute, but as a species I don't like cowbirds either.

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    1. What a cool story-- thanks for stopping by and sharing it!

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  13. Great story and illustrations! Entertaining and informative.

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  14. I'm pretty sure if I was a bird I wouldn't want to make my own nest either, I would just steal another's entirely... very cute pictures thought :) Book Savvy Babe

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  15. We have a large cowbird population here in the Midwest. While I don't dislike them, I get annoyed when I see a bird like the cardinal feeding one of them. Because that's one less cardinal in my yard.

    What amazes me is how the cowbird chick eventually learns to be a cowbird. Their vocalizations and behaviors must be entirely genetic since their parents don't raise them. Can you tell I spend way too much time watching birds?

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  16. Very interesting, and great pictures. I knew about the cuckoo, being a European, but not about other species of parasite birds around the world.

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    1. My post this week is a bit more educational, isn't it? :-)

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  17. I can just see the soap opera plot...the problem child who won't leave the nest!

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  18. What a great post, and great photos.

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  19. Definitely can't blame them for running off and hiding from that demanding bird - poor things!

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    1. Every parent needs some down time, you know? ;-)

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  20. Beautiful bird photos. Thanks for all the info about the cowbirds and towhees.
    Joy's Book Blog

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  21. I love the detailings, the expressions. Such beautiful bird photos...


    Here is my Saturday Snapshot post!

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  22. Thanks for the information. I enjoyed it and your pictures!

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    1. I'm glad-- thanks for stopping by!

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  23. Lol. What a lot of bird drama!!! I think I'm on the side of the Towhee's, although I'd never be able to turn away a cowbird in need of help, either. Great post!!

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