Illinois State Museum

cowbird from Prairie Exhibit<br> Illinois State Museum
Cowbird from Prairie Exhibit
Illinois State Museum

Change Is Good for Whom?

Since the arrival of the first people in Illinois, human actions have affected the environment. Natural forces have also continued to change climate, land, and life. Determining the impacts of environmental change is difficult. Every change in an ecosystem starts a chain reaction that benefits some species and sends others to extinction.

Making Connections: People, Cowbirds, and Other Birds
Which species benefited from environmental changes? Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are wide-ranging prairie birds that feasted on insects stirred up by grazing bison.

These small birds are nest parasites. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, such as warblers and vireos. They leave the care of the eggs to the foster parents. The cowbird's eggs hatch first, and the young cowbirds consume all the food brought by their foster parents. Cowbirds grow quickly and push out the chicks of the bird that built the nest.

Forest Fragmentation
Human activities, however, have changed this native bird's way of life (and that of many other North American birds). Highways, agriculture, and urban sprawl have opened up new habitats for the cowbird. As human-made environments expand into forests, they become corridors that allow cowbirds to reach the nests of birds once protected by deep-forest.

Good or Bad?
Forest fragmentation has been good for cowbirds. These birds have spread from coast to coast in North America. The changes have been bad for other bird species. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of 62 species of Illinois birds. Some of these birds are now scarce because of this aggressive nest parasite.