The Brown-Headed Cowbird: A Model Species for Testing Novel Research Questions in Animal Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

  • Brian D. PeerEmail author
  • James W. Rivers
  • Loren Merrill
  • Scott K. Robinson
  • Stephen I. Rothstein
Part of the Fascinating Life Sciences book series (FLS)


Although the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) is the most intensively studied brood parasite in the world, much of the research on cowbirds has focused on the negative effects of parasitism. Here, we argue that negative attitudes toward the cowbird have overshadowed opportunities this species provides for advancing our understanding of social behavior, physiology, evolution, and ecology and conservation of birds. Cowbirds are widely distributed, amenable to captive study, and easy to study in areas where they are abundant. Cowbird nestlings must communicate to unrelated host parents, but unlike some parasitic nestlings, they have no specialized adaptations for doing so. In some areas they often share nests with relatives, which may influence the degree of virulence host experience. The generalist strategy of the cowbird can be used to answer questions about the impact of high reproductive output on female cowbirds, maternal allocation of resources into eggs, and the consequences of exposure to a range of pathogens while visiting host nests. Cowbirds and their hosts provide a contrast to cuckoo-host systems because they are at an earlier stage of coevolution, and only a minority of hosts shows effective defenses against parasitism. Cowbirds serve as a model species for studying song learning as aspects of their complex vocalizations are dependent on experience to different degrees. Cowbirds also challenge assumptions of the link between mating systems and parental care because cowbirds are often socially monogamous. Finally, cowbirds are unique among brood parasites for their effects on endangered host species. In this chapter, we discuss the value of cowbirds as a model species in these areas and suggest avenues for future research.



We thank Alex Cruz, Gabriel Jamie, and Manolo Soler for their comments on the manuscript. LM thanks T.J. Benson and the Illinois Natural History Survey for support, and Tara Stewart Merrill for feedback. JWR’s work has been supported by the Animal Behavior Society, the Chapman Fund of the American Museum of Natural History,, the Los Angeles Audubon Society, the Graduate Division at UC-Santa Barbara, the Academic Senate at UC-Santa Barbara, the NSF-Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant program, and the NSF-LTER Program at Konza Prairie.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian D. Peer
    • 1
    Email author
  • James W. Rivers
    • 2
  • Loren Merrill
    • 3
  • Scott K. Robinson
    • 4
  • Stephen I. Rothstein
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesWestern Illinois UniversityMolineUSA
  2. 2.Department of Forest Ecosystems and SocietyOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA
  3. 3.Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research InstituteUniversity of IllinoisChampaignUSA
  4. 4.Florida Museum of Natural HistoryGainesvilleUSA
  5. 5.Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

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