The Birdmother: Science ‘ruffles feathers’ (Or: Let’s Talk About Cowbirds)


Women are better navigators, because Science.

Or at least that’s what Mélanie Guigueno, PhD candidate at Advanced Facility for Avian Research, part of the University of Western Ontario in London, recently found out about the lady Brown-headed cowbird (yes, you read that right).

Research published this week in Biology Letters explained that lady cowbirds have perfected the art of navigation, strengthening spatial working memory, to ensure the survival of their species.

Cue the bird puns: “women say men are bird-brained for refusing to ask for help, the men who most need a navigational aid are those of a fine-feathered sort: Brown-headed cowbirds.”

(Groans, buries face in hands)

Guigueno trained seven male and seven female cowbirds to look for hidden food hidden somewhere among 25 cups.  Birds were trained to identify where the food was hidden, but “when they returned from a random direction after an interval of up to 24 hours, the females were best at reorienting themselves and heading straight for the food.

Gentlemen birds “were just running around in circles,” flitting about until they came across something edible.

In addition to fueling discussions among men and women about why “it turns out some men really should stop and ask for directions,” the research actually has serious scientific objectives and could have help inform researchers trying to combat neurodegenerative disease.

cowbirds spatial memoryFemale cowbirds can now rebuff unwanted advances with a very appropriate, “GET LOST.”

But why do lady cowbirds have stronger spatial working memory?

It’s simple: lady cowbirds are so busy being fabulous and ‘leaning in’ (ie: laying more than three dozen eggs in a summer) they don’t have time to raise their own hatchlings.

Mama Cowbird uses a sort of avian wet-nurse service: they stake out nests, wait for the resident birds to go out for milk and eggs, then swoop in and lay their eggs in the nests.  In short, Mama Cowbird co-opts other species of birds to raise her hatchlings. How aristocratic!

And the best part: after she has dumped her heirs, the lady cowbird stalks the nest, unruffling her plumage, wearing her pearls and diamonds whilst smoking, to make sure her plan succeeds.  And according to the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, “if the cowbird egg is removed, the female cowbird may destroy the host’s eggs.”

Because if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

134548470.gcpNg86JI think you’re old enough to be on your own now.

And it gets worse: Wikipedia authors cite this bone-chilling study as its source of information: “Retaliatory mafia behavior by a parasitic cowbird favors host acceptance of parasitic eggs.”


Lady cowbirds are disengaged, yet wrathful mothers – and they will break your kids’ legs if you mess with their hatchlings.

Quite naturally, the study has ‘ruffled feathers’ (get it?).  Reactions to the stories by Globe and Mail and London Free Press journalists, both of whom were (thankfully) men, had readers ‘crowing’ (ha!):

‘5tree’ commented on The Globe and Mail: “Women could take a lesson or two from their avian counterparts.”

‘Chris_Lalonde’: “Is that after they got their male spouse to ask for directions?”

‘David Gibson’ used Bible speak in his thundering pronouncement: “”Science” these days is run through a socio-political filter before being deemed legitimate. The End Times approacheth.”

‘Doctor Demento’: “Hello, editor who wrote the headline, you are allowing your own misandry fantasies and wishes to lead you to an inaccurate and overblown headline.”

In The London Free Press, ‘Lady Bug’, ‘Real Layers’, and ‘Robert ‘Get a Job’ Smithersargued the merits of the study and hinted that feminists “have their claws out.” (Rolls eyes – of the 10 people commenting/arguing/clutching pearls over the story, 8 were dudes).

Carl McIntyre’ (who clicked, read, and commented on the story): “I see sexism has a home at the Lfp. Keeping it classy. Seriously, how is this a story anyone wants to read? No doubt this bird brained study is government funded. The only reason anybody clicks on it is because of the the stereotype in the headline.”

cowbirds3They’re called COWBIRDS, Carl. What more could you possibly want?

Getting back to the science: gentleman cowbirds are exempt from participating in family life, so there is no ecological need for them to develop their spatial performance.

And while the study clearly only applies to Brown-headed cowbirds, The Globe and Mail’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk couldn’t resist one final stir of the gender politics pot:

“Asked why no one had been able to achieve such a result before, Ms. Guigueno said that it was simply a matter of training the wild cowbirds to perform the elaborate task. It was a daunting challenge, Ms. Guigueno said, but one that she and her fellow experimenter, Danielle Snow, were willing to undertake.

Does that mean that other forms of gender superiority might be coming into play in the lab?

“If you’re patient and consistent, birds will learn,” Ms. Guigueno simply said with a smile.”


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