While I was doing some vegetation monitoring in a native hay meadow this morning, I found a bobolink nest.
If you’re not familiar with grassland nesting birds, the idea of building a nest right on the ground might seem pretty silly and dangerous. However, while a predator doesn’t have to fly or climb into a tree to get to the eggs, it still has to find them, and that can be pretty difficult when the nest is out in the middle of a large grassland. To illustrate how well hidden the above nest was, here is a series of photos taken at various heights above it.
The only reason I found the nest is that I crouched down in the vegetation a few feet from the nest to examine the plants in my plot frame. About a minute later, the female bobolink fluttered out of the nest. She must have waited anxiously as long as she could stand it, but my continued presence that close to the nest finally flushed her – allowing her to fly to safety but exposing the location of her nest. Fortunately for her and her unborn chicks I took only photographs. I wish her the best with her family, including one (so far) cowbird.
(For those of you who might not know the story of brown-headed cowbirds, they are brood parasites who drop their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Those host birds then raise the cowbird young – often at the expense of their own. This is a host-parasite relationship that has been going on for thousands of years in North American prairies.)
Well, it sounds like you didn’t dispatch the cow-bird egg. Not pulling weeds, not eliminating parasites… how will this system keep running without our intervention? ;) Makes me wonder about the fate of the Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan once it gets federally delisted. Fun (and important) questions to ponder. May all our tinkering be intelligent!
So mote it be, Adam.
This man that took the photos of this nest is an asshole. Knowing that egg is a damn cowbird’s egg and never took it out knowing that damn cowbird will cause the mother’s chicks to die of starvation cause the damn cowbird is causing the poor mother to work her tail off literally to feed that cowbird and not be given the chance to feed her own chicks. Also, if a female bird has eggs in her nest and that female becomes flushed by humans cause they got way to close to the eggs well, there’s a very high chance that that female bird will abandon her eggs cause of the assholes that bothered the female bird and nest.I hope the female returned to her nest, if not the chicks would’ve died thanks to Chris Helzer. Chris Helzer needs to back the hell off and leave nests alone. No wonder bird species are becoming endangered. Humans can’t leave well enough alone besides the predators.
Stacy, thanks for your comment. A couple things to consider. First, I completely disagree that there is a ‘high chance’ of the female abandoning the nest because I stumbled upon it and took some photos of it. I am backed up by lots of published research and years of experience with grassland bird research and observation. The myth that birds abandon their nests or nestilings easily because they smell or otherwise know the nest has been bothered is just that: a myth. The bigger risk comes from helping predators find the nest, which is most likely if repeated visits to the nest create a trail.
Second, the choice to leave the cowbird egg is one most biologists I know struggle with, and decisions made vary widely. It’s important to remember the cowbird is native to the same prairie as the other birds and has evolved this strategy over many years. It’s not their fault humans have fragmented the landscape enough that their long term strategy now has bigger implications to other species than it used to. Cowbird have their own unique and cool back story as a species and some people support leaving eggs alone as strongly as you apparently oppose it. I have mixed emotions, but in this case chose to stay out of the story and left the birds to sort it out themselves. I accept your criticism, however, and understand it.
As context, it would have been technically illegal for me to destroy that egg (Migratory bird treaty act). Also, I don’t try kill or eliminate foxes, skunks, snakes, or all the other potential animals in our prairies that can also prevent successful bird nesting attempts. Instead, I’ve spent my career trying to improve habitat conditions and to plant prairies adjacent to small fragments to enlarge and reconnect grasslands so the birds (and many other species there) have a greater chance of survival.
Finally, I don’t go looking for nests just so I can bother the birds. I spend most of my days in prairies and coincidentally stumble upon nests now and then. I stop and photograph a small percentage of those as part of my larger conservation outreach efforts. Despite the effect this photo and my larger blog post had on you, I’ve had a more positive impact on many others, helping them better understand, appreciate, and support prairies and prairie conservation. That, too, is supported by data, by the way.
I live in the Post Oak Savannah of north Texas, trying to restore natives to a Bahia pasture.. Glad I found you… So neat how well the nest is hidden by grass which is only 1 1/2′ tall.
Great post, Chris.
How lucky you are to have nesting Bobolinks! Please take care of them. If you leave the cowbird egg in her nest, the bobolink will feed it, and since it will hatch first and eat more than the bobolink hatchlings, they may in fact starve, at least some of them, as well as exhaust the poor parent bobolinks……help her out toss the cowbird egg! The bobolinks are endangered, the cowbirds are opportunists that are not at all threatened as a species.
I tend to agree Gay!
So you wouldn’t recommend removing the cowbird egg from the nest.
Every scientist’s dilemma….
I expect so. I saw a couple cowbirds in my suburban neighborhood. I was surprised.
Chris – thanks for suggesting in your post there’s no need to do anything about the cowbird egg in the bobolink nest. I’d like to offer some more info for the benefit of your blog readers. First, brown-headed cowbirds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and destroying or removing the cowbird egg would be a violation of that act:
Second, bobolinks are not a federally-listed threatened or endangered species, nor are they considered a threatened or endangered species in Nebraska. They are a species of conservation concern in Nebraska and many other states and Canadian Provinces and some of those states and provinces do indeed classify them as threatened. The Partners in Flight Bird Conservation Plan for the Dissected Till Plains (which encompasses eastern Nebraska) considers bobolink a priority species.
While nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds is an important factor affecting populations of some threatened and endangered species such as Kirtland’s warblers and black-capped vireos, it should not be considered a threat to or a significant regulator of host bird populations in all areas where cowbird nest parasitism occurs. Brown-headed cowbirds are known to parasitize nests of over 200 bird species and like you said in your post, they and their hosts have been playing this game for thousands of years in the prairies of the U.S.
I’m not aware of any state or regional planning efforts that advocate control of brown-headed cowbird populations (or destruction of brown-headed cowbird eggs in host nests) as a means of increasing bobolink populations. The plans I’m familiar with instead advocate for habitat management and restoration as the primary actions that should be taken in the U.S. to maintain or enhance bobolink populations.
So – keep up the good work Chris in maintaining and restoring bobolink (and brown-headed cowbird) habitat in the Central Platte Valley.
I have all ways wondered how the chicks know they are cow birds when they are raised by other parents!
I guess it is genetic! They probably fly away as soon as they’ve ousted all the bobolinks. They don’t stay around for any bonding.
Sorry, not buying the genetics alone theory. Most of the nurture vs. nature theory’s come up short. It leaves too much to chance and cow birds are very successful with this strategy. There has to be more to it. But what??
I’ve wondered if the cow bird parents take over sometime after the fledging. Have not found any studies that address this….. yet.
The brown headed cowbird deposits the egg in someone else’s nest and never returns. They have no contact with their egg. So it certainly isn’t nurture that makes a cowbird think it is a cowbird. Check out the Cornell site.
Here’s more from Stanford. http://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Cowbirds.html
Thank you for the great articles. Found them very interesting. But they do not even begin to address the question of “How do they know they are cow birds?”
Walk softly and carry a high powered lens! I’m grateful that mama bobolink made her presence known and that you shared your experience and information, visually and texturally. Thanks!
If the parent cowbird never returns, then it must be genetic. There isn’t any nurture involved. But that’s a good question for Cornell or Stanford. I’d take it up with them.
I have asked Cornell about this and it seems to be a question that is unworthy of serious study. Scientists are uncomfortable with any questions that suggests intelligence and consciousness in animals, insects and plants. Therefor most dismiss these inquires with out real investigation. Genetics is much too convenient of a conclusion and I refuse to accept it with out evidence.
Humans are very quick to dismiss the creatures that share our planet as “things” driven by genetics and instinct. And this hubris is a source of the complete disconnect we have with nature and is destroying the only home we have.
It is a discussion worth having so I throw it out there when ever I can. That is the reason for my challenge.
Thanks for sharing these photos, Chris! I have only seen Bobolinks two or three times and hadn’t pursued any sort of study of them; so didn’t know they were ground-nesters. Love the eggs. ! Gotta share this with the boys.
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