Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater, Parasitism and Abundance in the Northern Great Plains


  • Lawrence D. Igl U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, 8711 37th Street SE, Jamestown, North Dakota 58401
  • Douglas H. Johnson U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, 204 Hodson Hall, 1980 Folwell Avenue, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108



Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater, brood parasitism, grasslands, multiple parasitism, spatial variation, temporal variation, northern Great Plains


The Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) reaches its highest abundance in the northern Great Plains, but much of our understanding of cowbird ecology and host-parasite interactions comes from areas outside of this region. We examine cowbird brood parasitism and densities during two studies of breeding birds in the northern Great Plains during 1990–2006. We found 2649 active nests of 75 species, including 746 nonpasserine nests and 1902 passerine nests. Overall, <1% of nonpasserine nests and 25% of passerine nests were parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Although the overall frequency of cowbird parasitism in passerine nests in these two studies is considered moderate, the frequency of multiple parasitism among parasitized nests was heavy (nearly 50%). The mean number of cowbird eggs per parasitized passerine nest was 1.9 ± 1.2 (SD; range = 1–8 cowbird eggs). The parasitism rates were 9.5% for passerines that typically nest in habitats characterized by woody vegetation, 16.4% for grassland-nesting passerines, 4.7% for passerines known to consistently eject cowbird eggs, and 28.2% for passerines that usually accept cowbird eggs. The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was the most commonly parasitized species (43.1% parasitism, 49.6% multiple parasitism, 71.2% of all cases of parasitism). Passerine nests found within areas of higher female cowbird abundance experienced higher frequencies of cowbird parasitism than those found in areas of lower female cowbird abundance. Densities of female cowbirds were positively related to densities and richness of other birds in the breeding bird community.