• Kevin Burrell

Cowbird: Laying Eggs in the Wrong Nest

Backyard birdwatchers have long villainized the squirrel, that relentless criminal mastermind who—by many scientific estimates—consumes up to 85 percent of the seed in your feeders. That means that when I buy a twenty-dollar bag of birdseed, I’m really investing three dollars in birds and up to seventeen dollars in…

Brown Headed Cowbird
© Jeff Caverly/Shutterstock

I honestly can’t finish that sentence. Romans 7:19 says, “the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” I think this includes feeding squirrels.


But there is a darker brooding evil lurking in your backyard. A sinister trickster. Malevolence with wings. Yes, I realize I’m overstating things, but every story needs a good villain, and I’d like to nominate the Brown-headed Cowbird as the perfect candidate.


The Uninvested Guest at the Nest


The cowbird is equal parts ruffian, mafioso, and double-agent. The scientific term to describe their behavior is brood parasitism, a unique breeding strategy (shared with cuckoos in Europe, whydahs and honeyguides in Africa, and the Black-headed Duck of South America) that earns the term parasite in an unconventional way. Simply put, why waste all that time and energy on making a nest, incubating eggs, and raising young? Why not pawn off those responsibilities on some other unsuspecting dolt?


And so a cowbird foregoes all that silly nest-making drama, and simply lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. She drops an egg here, an egg there, spread out to maximize success and avoid being too obvious, like a white-collar criminal diversifying his embezzlements in multiple offshore accounts. A strategy that requires zero energy for nest building, nest maintenance, incubation, or parenting can put all its effort into just one thing: laying eggs. And the cowbird can crank them out—up to three dozen in a single summer, strewn throughout the nests of your backyard like a Machiavellian Easter egg hunt.


Don’t other species notice the alien egg? Yes, sometimes. But removal tactics can be met with harsh repercussions. Researchers have fittingly dubbed this the “mafia hypothesis.” If a parent bird discovers the rogue cowbird egg, it might reject it by pushing it out of the nest, breaking it open, or (in the case of the Yellow Warbler) layering more nesting materials on top of it. But when the cowbird mobsters come by to inspect their deposits (which they do regularly), they may retaliate by destroying the nest, or injuring or killing the nestlings. Thus, host parents may be well-aware that they’re being duped but remain compliant out of fear of a shakedown. The Godfather would be proud.


And so, detected or not, the cowbird egg sits there like a ticking time bomb, an evil scheme waiting to hatch. The eggshells of cowbirds tend to be thicker and more durable than that of other birds, and also tend to hatch first. Once hatched, the host parents treat it as one of their own, exhausting themselves trying to feed a baby bird that will likely grow to be much bigger than itself. I watched last summer in my front yard as a Carolina Wren frantically captured insects to feed to a begging juvenile cowbird probably twice its size. Far from a heartwarming picture of cross-cultural adoption, this was instead the image of a freeloading post-adolescent who really needs to move out of his parent’s basement.


Worse still, since the cowbird often hatches first, it will “accidentally” (in the loose mafia-sense of the term) push the other eggs out of the nest. And as it grows, any surviving nestmates risk ejection or smothering.


Meanwhile, the parent cowbird watches on from a safe distance, cackling its sinister laugh and maniacally rubbing its wings together in evil glee (yeah, not true, but should be). The cowbird has only one remaining job: to make sure her baby knows it’s a cowbird. After all, wouldn’t a cowbird chick with chickadee nestmates and chickadee parents come to think of itself as part of that family, growing up to be a fine upstanding chickadee that breaks the evil cycle? Alas no. A Cornell study published by the Royal Society in 2001 suggests that parent cowbirds use “password behavior”—a coded language that unlocks the baby cowbird’s self-awareness and appetite for destruction. If you’re a Marvel fan, picture Baron Zemo reading Russian codewords out of a secret red ledger to activate the Winter Soldier for his next evil mission. The baby cowbird hears the codewords and is ready to comply.


Brown-headed Cowbird eggs have been found in the nests of 220 different North American species, and this brood parasitism behavior has been implicated in the declining populations of several species including the Black-Capped Vireo and the Kirtland’s Warbler. Well, says the cowbird, if you’re going to make an omelet you’ve got to break a few eggs.


I’ve been uncharitable. Yes, it’s important to remember that the cowbird isn’t actually acting out of a vicious motive or intent. It’s not like it’s a tool of Satan (like the squirrels). It’s just surviving, through a unique and curious set of innate behaviors. Hey, it’s a living. But that’s true of mosquitos too, and I’m guessing you’re not rushing to their defense.


Cowbird as a Verb


I once saw a cartoon in a youth ministry magazine, of a young man being led in handcuffs through a crowd from a police car to a prison door. In the crowd, the mother wails: “Oh son, son, where did your youth pastor go wrong?” Classic.


Hal Moran photo of Brown Headed Cowbird
© Hal Moran, Used by Permission

In my years as a youth pastor, at times I felt the pressure of unrealistic expectations. I remember one particularly discouraging parents’ meeting, as I previewed the upcoming calendar; the meeting devolved into a discussion on how I might create fundraisers to cover the cost of every event, and also provide rides (to both the events and the pre-event fundraisers) to ensure their students attended. These were not under-resourced families; it was a healthy suburban church and these parents showed a committed investment to their students’ other sports-and-extracurricular pursuits. I was caught off-guard, and baffled.


And yet now, as the parent of my own teenagers, how often have I foisted those same unrealistic expectations upon our own children’s and student ministries, looking to them to do all the heavy lifting in my kids’ discipleship? I find myself saying things like, “The youth group should really do a series on that” or “I hope they’ll eventually learn that in Sunday School” or “I wonder if the curriculum is addressing this cultural trend.”


Wait. Did I just cowbird?


Considering that I just made a verb out of that noun, let me attempt a definition. To cowbird is to pawn off into another’s nest the responsibility that belongs in our own. Let me elaborate with a couple of common examples.


Cowbird Parenting


In the age of the ministry professional, parents may be tempted to put discipleship on cruise control, entrusting our children’s spiritual development to specialized church staff. We look to them to do it, pay for it, and maybe even provide rides to it. This includes not only the ministries of the church but the “paid professionals” of Christian schools, conferences, and summer camps. But we have not lived out our calling as Christian parents simply by putting our child in a Christian classroom—laying our egg in someone else’s nest. Our role must be far more active than that.


That’s not to say that we don’t seek resonating voices. My church, as an example, has a vibrant NextGen team, built with the conviction that a healthy student ministry exists in partnership between the environments of church and home. I would be foolhardy not to allow those voices to collaborate. In fact, in my denomination, a congregation even makes a vow at a child’s baptism that we will “undertake the responsibility of assisting these parents in the Christian nurture of this child.” We understand our community’s common calling to nurture our children. But this web of support is meant to be a strength for parenting, not a substitute for it. Parents, equipped and supported by the larger church, are called to incubate the egg and nurture the nest, with a daily sitting-rising-walking sort of cadence (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).


Cowbird Calling


“Pastor, I think our church should be doing more about X.” This is a common Sunday foyer conversation, where X equals anything from prison ministry to coffee cups. In these feedback moments, I want to discern what the Lord is doing in the heart of the concerned person in front of me, and where that might connect with the story he’s writing in our church. The body is made up of many parts, and a person’s capacity to see something—or passion to address something—might be the Lord’s work in them, potentially making them the most likely source of the solution. And yet if I ask, “What role do you think the Lord is calling you to play in this?” sometimes the response is, “Oh, I didn’t mean me. I just think someone should do something.” Perhaps they just cowbirded?

Brown Headed Cowbird on millet
© Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock

We have to be personally obedient to duties and callings as God makes them evident. If God gave you the initial egg of an idea, it’s possible that you’re also meant to be part of its incubation and hatching. While it’s easy for us to think that our role as church members is to support the staff in its ministry, it’s far more accurate to see the staff equipping the members for theirs. We all have a role to play, with unique giftings and a unique calling to faithfully live out. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Just because you’re not a pastor or missionary doesn’t mean you’ve got the Junior-Varsity Holy Spirit. If you’re a believer, you’re on the Varsity team.” To imagine the work of the church as the work of the paid professionals is to lay our egg in the wrong nest.


Cowbird Grace


If you’re a rare soul who’s fond of the cowbird, it’s a fair bet that you already stopped reading this article a few paragraphs back. But if you’ve made it this far, let me end by reframing the picture more charitably. Because, despite all the negative imagery, there is a cowbird grace at the core of the Christian hope.


Imagine yourself for a moment as a cowbird chick, pre-hatched. You come from a long line of cowbirds who have pillaged their way through life, shirking responsibility, dropping eggs in any nest but their own. Left to your own devices, you will grow into those same actualities, destined to carry on that ruffian legacy.


But you hatch to discover you’ve been planted in a different sort of nest. You are cowbird-aware enough to know that you don’t belong here, but the father bird tends to you graciously, even lovingly. It’s clear to you that he hasn’t been hoodwinked into thinking you’re one of his chicks; no, he has knowingly decided against all facts to the contrary that you are, indeed, one of his chicks. He provides bountifully for you, and although you can hear your cowbird relatives whispering their cowbird code words from the nearby hedge, your nest father has a stronger voice, a sweeter song. His presence makes you want to be less like where you came from, and more like who he’s teaching you to be. You belong here, hatched to new life.


How could your Father do this? How could he take a foreign enemy born of the sin-lineage of Adam and make you a bona fide child of the nest? Because, in a grace-defining decision made before the world’s foundation, the Father would determine to entrust the egg of his Son to the nest of this fallen world, to take the responsibility—and the punishment—for all your irresponsible cowbirdiness.

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)

He would enter your nest so you could dwell in his.