Beware the Molothrus

When I watch some of the young parents around me, trying to balance parenting of precious children with overcrowded schedules, un-weaned self-interests, too many technical gadgets, and homes bulging with clutter, I shudder.

I also think of the year a brown-headed cowbird deposited its eggs in a pair of songbirds’ nest near a former neighbour’s porch. When all the eggs—both genuses—hatched, the parent songbirds almost plucked themselves bare trying to meet the raucous demands of the much larger chicks—to the neglect of their own.

Cowbirds are not parents at all, really. They barely deserve the label “bird.” Their genus name, Molothrus, means “intruder” in Latin. Scientists have labeled them brood parasites, because they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, then leave all the chick-raising work to that unwitting, unrelated parent.

My soft-hearted neighbor just about laid an egg himself, worrying about the weary parent songbirds and their hungry little ones. Each effort made by the parents on behalf of the intruders, meant that much less for their own chicks. He watched them slowly starve, pushed away from their rightful provisions by Molothrus.

Researchers have found that cowbirds are not only lazy—they’re vindictive. After laying their eggs, they monitor the nests regularly, spying on the new “foster parent”. If they somehow manage to evict the stowaways, the cowbirds take quick action to punish them, smashing the remaining eggs and trashing the nest. Genocide, of the avian variety: in many regions, cowbirds have decimated songbird populations.

Got children? Want to keep them? Learn from the birds, the Bible says. Trust God, but beware Molothrus. In fact, that caution works for what’s precious in every home.