A Cape Cod Notebook 6/12/07

listenAn Amoral Bird

By Robert Finch

Birds inevitably call up human history and, more problematically, human morals. For instance, the other morning, as I watched a flock of cowbirds pecking in the dried grass in front of a local motel, a medieval scene seemed to paint itself before me. What else, I thought, are these brown-headed, dour-looking, sober-minded birds but hooded monks with muffled walk and downcast eyes, gleaning humbly in the grain fields? Then suddenly among their number there descends a handsome gray prince, white chevrons flashing, to survey his royal lands. The regal mockingbird sings cosmopolitan and merry as he watches the holy cacklers from a lofty height. Knight and horse in one, the mockingbird stops nowhere for long, but constantly darts and flits everywhere with energy and good-feeling, a good-natured reproach, it seemed, to the humorless industry of the cowbird-monks. A harmless fancy, I suppose, but in this case fancy couldn't be more wrong. You see, the mockingbird, for all his seeming brash good spirits, is a sober and responsible parent. The cowbird's apparent industry and sobriety, on the other hand, is hypocritical, for it is by nature a parasite and a libertine. Despite its drab appearance and squeaky excuse for a song, it is the cowbird, not the mockingbird, who leads the true cavalier, carefree life. Don't take my word for it. Listen to Edward Howe Forbush's description of the cowbird in his classic 1925 work, The Birds of Massachusetts: "Cowbirds are free lovers," he writes. "They are neither polygamous nor polyandrous - just promiscuous...they are entirely unattached. Their courting is brief and to the point...There seems to be little jealousy and few combats occur between either males or females; the courtship is a happy-go-lucky affair It is 'off with the old and on with the new,' and the results of this brief union of congenial nature are surreptitiously deposited, not on the nearest available doorstep - but in the nests of other birds that are relied upon as good foster parents to rear the foundlings, while the care-free Cowbirds wander at their own sweet will with nothing to do but 'eat, drink, and be merry.'" In other words, cowbirds are jaunty parasites that build no nests of their own, but lay their eggs in the nests of other birds - most frequently, here on Cape Cod and the Islands, in those of the red-eyed vireo, the yellow warbler, and several species of swallows. Because the care of young in most birds is instinctive rather than conscious, the host birds usually fail to notice any difference between the cowbird chick and their own. And because the cowbird chick is generally larger than the host bird's chicks, and also tends to hatch sooner, the host chicks often either starve to death or are pushed out of the nest by the young cowbird. A dirty trick, you say? Well, perhaps in our view of things. But nature has no moral standards, and the cowbird's way is an evolutionary adaptation that has succeeded admirably. In nature's eyes, it;s quite as valid a method of propagation as that of the most industrious nest builder or the most devoted nuclear family, avian or human, and it won?t be measured by our provincial prejudices and righteous pronouncements about monogamy and family values.