Sep 5, 2009

COWBIRD, WARBLER, POLITICS, and the Labor of Labor Day



Intelligence is amoral; so is deception. Everything political is personal (Gloria Steinem). Remember good old George Goebel’s refrain?—“Well, I’ll be a dirty bird.”

A recent Nova Now program included a segment on the brown-headed cowbird, which/whom we all love to hate because the female lays her eggs, one at a time, by means of 10-second sneak-deposits, in the nests of other birds.

This tricks the host birds (we’ll say “warbler” here, to stick with the Nova show, though cowbirds exploit other species, too). The foster-parent warblers hatch, feed, and nurture cowbird chicks. Often the warbler young starve, or are at least malnourished, and their numbers decline.

Maybe to prevent the corny likes of me from becoming overly anthropocentric about the antics and ethics of the bird world, Nova Now took a light–hearted approach to the subject, calling the cowbirds the mafia of the avian world, and so on. Mama Cowbird becomes Tina Soprano. After dropping off her bundle of joy at the foster home, she stands guard from about 50 feet away, checking on the warbler nest to make sure the cowbird chick receives proper attention from its surrogate parents.

Scientists performed the experiment of removing the cowbird egg from the warbler nest and making the entrance hole to the nest too small for a cowbird to enter. But Tina Soprano consistently got her head in far enough to poke the warbler eggs into runny yolks. The pattern has all the appearance of revenge and enforcement by a cowbird mafia. Raise my chicks or else.

You can watch the show here:

It’s feel-good Science-Lite for folks like me, though I wonder what the evolutionary advantage is for cowbirds. I’d guess the strategy means more viable chicks than any couple could raise on their own.

But Nova doesn’t go into that. It might upset the Intelligent Design folks, at least those who refuse to let their children hear their president’s encouragement to stay in school, work hard and succeed. Go figure; I thought that Work Hard and Prosper biz was a right-wing mantra. And surely it was a similar culture of parents who accepted such talks from Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Maybe they now think the president is a cowbird, coming like the Pied Piper of Berkeley to steal their golden babes away and waltz them over Engels Hill.

Or maybe it's the right-wingers who want to be sneaky cowbirds; they have cowbird-envy. But they can't pass the entrance exam. Maybe they want to be sure their children don’t get smart either. If you have enough guns, you don’t need brains. “Clean your shotgun, Ralphie. Here comes another damned cowbird.”

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