Bird Database

Brown-headed Cowbird

(Molothrus ater)

State of the Birds
At a Glance



Short distance




Blackbird control

Conservation Actions

More data are needed on population trends and magnitudes of threats

Brown-headed Cowbird

(Molothrus ater)

Brown-headed Cowbirds are what ornithologists call “brood parasites.” Such birds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving these “hosts” to incubate them and care for the young, and thus take no parental responsibility whatsoever. For this reason cowbirds are frequently vilified by bird lovers, although from the cowbird’s perspective they seem to have managed a very good deal. There are five species of parasitic cowbirds in the Americas, and the Brown-headed is by far the least selective. Their eggs have been recorded in the nests of well over 100 species, including those – like ducks – that are totally unsuitable for the intended purpose. It is believed that a single female cowbird can lay as many as 40 eggs in a season.

She needs to be this prolific because not every egg is going to be successful. Some species (finches, the aforementioned ducks) are simply poor hosts; eggs laid in their nests will either never hatch or die as very young chicks. Several other species are wise to the cowbird’s ruse and will either remove eggs other than their own (e.g., catbirds), abandon their nest and start over (?), or build a new nest on top of the cowbird eggs and try again (Yellow Warbler). If the eggs are accepted, the chances are that the host will fail to rear any of their own young. For one thing cowbirds hold their eggs in their oviducts longer than normal, so that when laid they have a head start on incubation. When a young cowbird hatches it may push smaller host young out of the nest, or if not, it will grow faster and monopolize the food brought in by its foster parents – leaving the host chicks to starve.

Cowbirds were historically a bird of the Great Plains, where they followed herds of bison. Their parasitic behavior served them well in this situation since they didn’t spend much time in any one place. As European settlers cleared forests and started farms, cowbirds spread east into newly opened areas and began to parasitize species that had no previous experience with this behavior. Some rare and endangered species, like the Kirtland’s Warbler of Michigan, suffered greatly from reduced reproductive output to the extent that local cowbird control efforts had to be implemented. Ironically, cowbird populations themselves now seem to be in decline over most of their range, perhaps because of factors as varied as reforestation in the Northeast or changes to agricultural practices in the Midwest and Great Plains.

Seasonal Abundance

Relative abundance based on eBird data. Numbers indicate likelihood of finding this species in suitable habitat at a given time of year, not actual numbers encountered.

Brown-headed Cowbird
Range Map

Information for the species profiles on this website was compiled from a combination of the sources listed below.

  • The Birds of New Hampshire. By Allan R. Keith and Robert B. Fox. 2013. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological club No. 19.

  • Atlas of the Breeding Birds of New Hampshire. Carol R. Foss, ed. 1994. Arcadia Publishing Company and Audubon Society of New Hampshire

  • Birds of the World. Various authors and dates. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

  • Data from the Breeding Bird Survey

  • Data from the Christmas Bird Count