Catbird vs Cowbird
My husband left me almost 10 days ago. For another man. Truth be told, there were many men involved. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was seeing other men too. Steve, Red and Scott to name a few. I did what any woman would do when her husband runs away from home. I went shopping. My boutiques of choice—Tarpon True Value, Ace Hardware and Home Depot.
I’m not the only one who loves to run into a hardware store. Unlike some of Peace River Wildlife Center’s patients though, I am slightly less clumsy about it most days. We have gotten numerous grey catbirds this week that have knocked themselves senseless by flying into windows of many local shops. The catbirds are migrating through the area and are prone to flying into windows during their primarily nocturnal passage. Most of them just have minor head trauma and as soon as the cobwebs clear from their noggins, they are sent back out to continue their voyage.
The catbird is a fascinating species that winters in our area, but usually does not breed any further south than Sarasota County. It has grey feathers all over its body and relatively short wings. It is black on top of its head, its forehead and top of its tail. The long tail is a reddish brown underneath. While the juvenile has cloudy grey eyes, the adults’ eyes are a clear black. There is no difference in the appearance of the male and female.
A member of the mimidae family which includes the mockingbirds, the catbird has over 100 different calls, whistles and squeaks. It even has a vaguely cat-like mew from which its name is derived. The syrinx or vocal organ of this bird is divided and each side can function independently, enabling this trickster to sing with two different voices at the same time, adding even more variety to his repertoire. This would also give a distinct advantage to one running for political office, literally being able to speak out of both sides of his mouth.
The brown-headed cowbird is another species that migrates through our area at this time of year. While this species does not breed in southwest Florida either, in the areas where it does breed, the cowbird is known as a parasitic brooder. She lays her eggs in the nests of other birds and the unsuspecting mothers might raise the cowbird chicks alongside their own. Sometimes the cowbird chicks are larger than the host species and may kick those nestlings out of the nest.
Since she does not have to build and tend a nest, nor expend any energy raising her young, a female cowbird can lay up to 40 eggs per season. There are over 220 species of birds that have had their nests parasitized by cowbirds and over 144 species have successfully raised these foster hatchlings. The wily catbird is not one of them. It is one of only a dozen species of birds that can recognize cowbird eggs and eject them from its nest. This appears to be a learned behaviour, not an innate response. Now if only they could figure out how to stop trying to fly through glass and into cell phone towers. Or maybe it should be up to the allegedly more intelligent species (man) to figure out a way to make our invasion into the natural landscape less intrusive. But that is a rant for another column.
My husband is due home from his “vacation from me” tomorrow. He was helping to set up and work two consecutive competitive shooting matches that one of his best friends was officiating. I have spent the entire time parading around our yard with my new purchases—mowing, weed-wacking and brush-cutting. Thanks to the great advice from a slew of Home Depot employees, I now have a ZRT mower and a battery powered weed wacker and brush cutter. Now all I need is a good way to explain to my returning “warrior” why I can’t welcome him home with a hug. I can’t lift my arms above waist level.
by–Robin Jenkins, DVM