We evaluated geographical patterns in the abundance and distribution of Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater), and in the frequency of cowbird parasitism, across North America in relation to habitat fragmentation. We found no distinctive parasitism patterns at the national or even regional scales, but the species is most abundant in the Great Plains, the heart of their original range, and least common in the southeastern U.S. This situation is dynamic, because both the Brown-headed and two other cowbird species are actively expanding their ranges in the southern U.S. We focused almost entirely in this paper on the Brown-headed Cowbird, because it is the only endemic North American cowbird, its distribution is much wider, and it has been much more intensively studied. We determined that landscape is the most meaningful unit of scale for comparing cowbird parasitism patterns as, for example, in comparisons of northeastern and central hardwood forests within agricultural matrices, and suburbanized areas versus western coniferous forests. We concluded that cowbird parasitism patterns were broadly similar within all landscapes. Even comparisons between prominently dissimilar landscapes, such as hardwoods in agriculture and suburbia versus coniferous forest, display a striking similarity in the responses of cowbirds. Our review clearly indicated that proximity of feeding areas is the key factor influencing presence and parasitism patterns within the landscape. We considered intensity of landscape fragmentation from forest-dominated landscapes altered in a forest management context to fragmentation characterized by mixed suburbanization or agricultural development. Our review consistently identified an inverse relationship between extent of forest cover across the landscape and cowbird presence. Invariably, the variation seen in parasitism frequencies within a region was at least partially explained as a response to changes in forest cover. The most salient geographic aspect of cowbirds' response to landscape fragmentation is the time since fragmentation occurred. Eastern landscapes generally experienced 200 years ago the development and fragmentation that western landscapes experienced less than 75 years ago. Consequently, there is a broad east-west contrast in which more numerous human settlements and smaller unbroken forest stands are found in the East, a difference that permits cowbirds to be more pervasive and ubiquitous. The locality of suitable feeding areas is a hallmark trait of the cowbirds' strategy in exploiting specific forest fragments. Host abundance influences parasitism patterns only secondarily at the landscape scale. These two limiting factors come into play differently in different landscapes. For example, cowbird abundance in unbroken forested landscapes are limited primarily by the availability of foraging areas rather than by host density, whereas cowbirds are limited primarily by host availability in landscapes that are extensively fragmented with feeding areas.
Additional publication details
Geographic variation in cowbird distribution, abundance, and parasitism