There has always been a segment of the American population that wants to dump the “Star Spangled Banner” in favor of “America the Beautiful.” Proponents of the change argue that the present national anthem is too bellicose and misrepresents the warm and fuzzy people we really are. However, if we are going to embark on a symbol-revision program we ought to begin with a more important task—finding a new national bird. The anthem is not that big a deal, really. We are subjected to it only during sports events and late-night TV sign-offs. And even then it’s only the first verse. However, images of the bald eagle are everywhere (not unlike the federal government it symbolizes). It’s on our money. It’s on postal workers’ clothing. It’s on seals and flags and buildings. Environmentally speaking, the choice of national symbol is ultimately more significant than our choice of pre-game music.
The bald eagle is a lousy choice for national symbol on at least two counts—he looks warlike (thus offending warm-and-fuzzies) but is really a wimp species (which would offend hard-liners, if they only knew). Climb up and peek into an eagle’s nest and the eagle will probably sputter weakly and flap off to consult with its allies on a safe perch somewhere far away. If you tried to climb up and peek into a great horned owl’s nest it would most likely swoop in and rearrange your face before you got halfway up the tree. Even a hummingbird is more aggressive in defense of its nest than our national bird. And have you ever heard an eagle’s call? It’s pathetic. The only sound they make is a whiny excited burble and a neurotic scream. Woodpeckers sound more menacing.
Nor is the eagle a robust symbol of the work ethic and free enterprise. Most days our proud national bird can be found in many of our national parks mugging vultures to snatch a rotting muskrat carcass or beating up an osprey to steal fish. Not a food-gathering entrepreneur by nature, the current national bird prefers sponging off the efforts of smaller, more capable food-finding species whenever he can.
And how can we as a modern industrial people select as a national symbol a species so sensitive to everyday chemicals? A little DDT and a few other banal polyhalogenated hydrocarbons and instantly the bald eagle is on the endangered list—for decades. And even though the bald eagle has made an allegedly miraculous post-DDT population comeback, the malingering softy clings to the endangered list. Eagles can’t hack noise, phosphates, or heavy metals, either. We need a national bird that can withstand the everyday toxins of modern American life, not some oversensitive eco-wimp.
It’s time for a new symbol, a bird whose natural history and lifestyle reflect the emerging dominant American lifestyle. We have been stuck with the eagle since 1782, and I say it’s time for a change. The bird that best reflects our changed America is the brown-headed cowbird.
The story of the cowbird is a resonantly American one. Eons ago ancestral male cowbirds probably gathered insects from the backs of the huge bison herds in the Great Plains and carried them back to their mates on the nest. In winter both male and female birds probably even plucked the undigested grains and seeds from warm bison manure as do other plains birds.
The attachment to the herd must have been very strong for these birds. But that attachment can be stressful because bison can wander great distances each day. The strain on a male bird could become enormous if he had to catch up with the moving herd, grab a bug or two, fly several miles back to the nest to feed his mate and babies, and then repeat the process. Some of the ancestral birds probably rejected the herd-following lifestyle and simply developed new feeding habits closer to home. But the ancestors of the cowbirds were more committed to their lifestyle. The male birds apparently decided to stay with the herd and simply stopped coming back to the nest.
The ancestral female was faced with a terrible choice: either be left behind forever by the herd and raise her babies alone or abandon the nest and return to the herd. The single-parent lifestyle has never been a popular option among bird species—the vast majority of avian species have some form of two-parent support system. In the end, she made the best of a bad situation by leaving her eggs in the nests of nearby birds of another species. She then flew off to rejoin the others back at the herd.
Luckily for her, those birds she selected were not very bright and the new eggs were not recognized as being of foreign origin. They were incubated and hatched and the cowbird babies fed by the adoptive parents. Even as each baby cowbird grew to a size and shape entirely unlike the adopted parents, the involuntary surrogate parents never caught on and continued to feed the cowbird as one of their own. Despite their stable upbringing, when the young cowbirds grew up they too must have felt the ancient call of the herd. They looked inward and then flew off to hang out.
The male cowbird has no parental instincts at all—his life is sex and a casual diet of bugs and seeds. He is more colorful and attractive than the female. His plumage is dark and sleek with a contrasting brown head and neck. The line of plumage contrast is located exactly where you’d expect to see an open collar and a gold chain on a human. In contrast, the female has a rather drab gray-brown appearance. Her life is dominated by the constant search for a place to unload her offspring.
Unfortunately for the cowbird, some bird couples tapped for involuntary surrogate parenthood aren’t stupid and will recognize and destroy the cowbird eggs left in their nest or abandon the nest altogether when the foreign deposit appears. For this reason, evolutionary pressures have compelled female cowbirds to become more sexually active in order to produce more eggs to leave in more places—as many as forty a year nowadays.
Not surprisingly, cowbirds are more flexible with respect to sexual relationships than are many other bird species. A few cowbirds actually establish monogamous breeding pairs. Some form monogamous pairs in which one or both parties cheat. But most remain entirely promiscuous. Loose mating territories are established in the spring but are not rigorously defended.
With the coming of European settlers and the massive forest-clearing that followed, the cowbird began to filter into farms, cities, and suburbs where it now thrives in great numbers—at the expense of those species who accept the burden of raising cowbird young. It is believed that the female cowbird will try to find a nest of the same species that raised her, an example of the well-known biological principle that no good deed goes unpunished.
The abundance of modern U.S. farms and gardens now gives the cowbird an unprecedented opportunity to settle down in fixed territories like other birds. But that isn’t likely to happen. Where there are lots of surrogate parent nests available the males tend to become more promiscuous as more females concentrate nearby. Where there is a shortage of surrogate parents with whom to leave the eggs, the females tend to travel more in search of target nests and they then become more promiscuous as they pass through the territories of new males. Either way, the cowbird doesn’t appear destined for widespread monogamy.
The scientific name for the cowbird genus is molothrus. This name was coined by the great naturalist William Swainson (1789–1855) after he observed cowbirds feeding greedily near cattle pens. It appears from his notes that Swainson actually meant to use the Greek word molobrus (“parasite or greedy person”) but he misspelled it and the cowbird has been stuck with “molothrus” ever since.
I say it’s time to elevate the cowbird to its proper place. What better symbol of our national character than the sleek insouciance of the brown-headed cowbird right on the dollar bill itself? It would remind us on each shopping trip that at the bottom of the surface of the American soul there is an abiding assent to the call of the herd whenever and wherever it may move, no matter who or what may have to be left behind. Someday we may indeed find our parking space as a nation and enter the mall of our destiny, but until then the cowbird best captures where we’re headed and why.
George A. Tobin, an attorney in Washington, D.C., contributed “The Camera and the Sandwich” to our December 1992 issue.
Photo by berichard via Creative Commons. Image cropped.