Old Books: Cowbird 1904-style

My aunt’s cottage on Keuka Lake has been in the family since my great uncle C. C. Cunnings built it 90 years ago. There are many interesting old items lying around; rowboats, antique fishing gear, tableware, and books. We found this description of a cowbird in a 1904 Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music:

“This disreputable character, parasitic in habit and degenerate in all moral instinct is famous for the abominable habit of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. It is not handsome either. The cowbird has no song; his nearest approach to music is a sort of guttural murmuring, produced with an apparently nauseous effort. These guttural chirps are an index to the character of the bird; they are harshly metallic, without rhythm or sentiment. Why should they have either? The bird has no mate to call. He is a polygamist, a bird of no principles, a low down character. He usually goes with a flock of other evil spirits just like himself, and their favorite resort is the pasture where the cattle graze. Very probably they have one redeeming quality; they keep myriads of insects in check which otherwise would worry the life out of the cows; but no one seems to be positively sure about that. It is certain, however, that the young cowbirds do no end of harm to the bird families upon which they are foisted, for there is many a dainty warbler or vireo pushed out of the nest or starved to death by reason of selfishness of the loutish (cowbird) foster brother.”

For comparison, a description of a cowbird from a contemporary field guide: “Common on farmland, often feeding in mixed flocks with Red-wings, Brewer’s Blackbird, or Common Grackles. The plain mouse-gray female lays its speckled egg in the nests of other species, especially of warblers, vireos, and sparrows. The young beg noisily for food from their foster parents. Song is a thin whistle.”

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6 Comments on “Old Books: Cowbird 1904-style”

  1. Frank Paolo Says:

    Great post! Is the 1904 guy really describing a bird – or some of his shady relatives? Obviously cowbirds at the turn of the century thumbed their beaks at conventional morality, did pretty much what they wanted to do, and couldn’t sing.

    And I mistakenly thought I evolved from a cat!

  2. jen Says:

    And where are cowbirds today? And do they dance with the crows?

  3. richard shade gardner Says:

    JEN-Although a lot of pastures and cows have disappeared since 1904, cowbirds have not. They’ve adapted to suburban living and can be seen, among other places, in grassy lawns hunting for insects-RSG

  4. Jen Says:

    Well I think you should post photos when you write about birdies and such. All I see in my yard are overweight crows.

  5. amy sutryn Says:

    Hi Rich!
    This delightful book has been re-issued. I found it on amazon.com for 11.99. When it arrives, I am going to try playing the music on my flute to see if I can call the birds.
    If it works I’ll let you know! Cheers! Cuzzin Amy

  6. bimini tops Says:

    Next your going to tell us that the same thing happened years before when you, a buddy and his brother in law (call them call them Tom and Wayne to protect the innocent) were fishing and Tom s pole fell off his lap.


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