Shiny Cowbird

Molothrus bonariensis

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1999
  • Peter E. Lowther and William Post

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the Shiny Cowbird in the West Indies and Florida.

This species occurs locally throughout the year within the dashed lines and its range is expanding northward. Also breeds in South America.

Shiny Cowbird, male

A native of South America, the Shiny Cowbird reached North America (Florida) in 1985 by natural expansion through the Antilles island chain. A single male was seen on Lower Matecumbe Key, Monroe Co., Florida, on 14 June 1985; the next year, 3 males were seen in July at nearby Islamorada on Plantation Key, Florida; and in 1987, a pair was seen in Everglades National Park in May, and up to 5 males and 2 females were seen there in June (Smith and Sprunt IV 1987). By 1991, Shiny Cowbirds were considered permanent residents in southern Florida (Post et al. 1993, Stevenson and Anderson 1994b). A definite breeding record has not yet been established there, but a fledgling cowbird fed by Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in Dade Co., FL, in 1991, was claimed to be a Shiny Cowbird (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b). Since the 1980s, Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) have also expanded their breeding range to include most of Florida, so specific identification of Molothrus young in southern Florida is problematic.

Shiny Cowbirds are generalist brood parasites. Their arrival in North America raises concerns for potential host species. In the West Indies, this concern has fostered studies of the endangered Yellow-shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius xanthomus) and island endemic Puerto Rican Vireo (Vireo latimeri) and their interaction with Shiny Cowbirds.

Since publication of Herbert Friedmann's monograph on the cowbirds (Friedmann 1929), the number of known victims (species receiving cowbird eggs) and hosts (victims that have reared cowbird young) of the Shiny Cowbird has increased steadily. In 1929, the count was 82 victims and 14 hosts.

Since then, the counts have increased to 146 victims, including 26 hosts (Friedmann 1963); 176 victims, including 36 hosts (Friedmann et al. 1977); 201 victims, including 53 hosts (Friedmann and Kiff 1985); and 232 victims, including 74 hosts (see the Appendix 1). With entry of the Shiny Cowbird into North America, and continued studies of Shiny Cowbirds in the West Indies and in South America, the numbers of victims and hosts will no doubt continue to increase.

Opportunistic in its feeding behavior and choice of hosts, the Shiny Cowbird is in many respects the South American counterpart of the Brown-headed Cowbird. It appears to differ from the latter species in being more insectivorous, and in feeding higher off the ground. In some regions, it may specialize in parasitizing marsh-nesting blackbirds, particularly Agelaius species. It also more frequently parasitizes cavity-nesting hosts. What little is known about the mating systems of the Brown-headed and Shiny cowbirds suggests that both species are labile, varying from monogamy to polygamy-polygyny, depending perhaps on host availability.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, P. E. and W. Post (1999). Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.