Female Brown-headed Cowbird
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Icteridae
Genus: Molothrus
Swainson, 1832

Cowbirds are birds belonging to the genus Molothrus in the family Icteridae. They are brood parasitic New World birds which are unrelated to the Old World cuckoos, one of which, the Common Cuckoo, is the most famous brood parasitic bird.


This family includes five species of cowbirds that form the natural genus Molothrus. This has been determined by phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA sequences.[1]

The Molothrus genus contains:

The non-brood parasitic Bay-winged Cowbird was formerly placed in this genus; it is now classified as Agelaioides badius.


These birds feed on insects, including the large numbers that may be stirred up by cattle. In order for the birds to remain mobile and stay with the herd, they have adapted by laying their eggs in other birds' nests. The cowbird will watch for when its host lays eggs, and when the nest is left unattended, the female will come in and lay its own eggs. The female cowbird may continue to observe the nest after laying her eggs. If the cowbird egg is removed, the female cowbird may destroy the host's eggs.[2]

The Brown-headed Cowbird

The Brown-headed Cowbird has over 220 hosts.[3] The other cowbird species have fewer known hosts, but all the species are generalists when it comes to choosing a host. This means that the eggs may look different from the hosts' eggs. The cowbird chicks grow quickly, and may consume most of the food the host brings. Starvation will often kill the host's chicks. In some species the cowbird chick will use its large size to push the other chicks out of the nest. The Giant Cowbird does not appear to harm its host oropendola or cacique chicks.

In popular culture

  • A pair of cowbirds appeared as recurring villains in the comic strip Pogo by Walt Kelly


  1. ^ Lanyon 1992, Johnson and Lanyon 1999, Lanyon and Omland 1999, in Lowther, 2004
  2. ^ Jeffrey P. Hoover; Scott K. Robinson (13 March 2007). "Retaliatory mafia behavior by a parasitic cowbird favors host acceptance of parasitic eggs". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 26 August 2009.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  3. ^ Friedmann, Herbert; LLoyd E. Kiff and Stephen I. Rothstein (1977). "A further Contribution to knowledge of the Host Relations of the Parasitic Cowbirds.". The Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution Press. Retrieved 26 August 2009.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)

External links

Eurasian Spoonbill This article is part of Project Bird Genera, a All Birds project that aims to write comprehensive articles on each genus, including made-up genera.
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