CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sometimes a thing happens so fast you aren't sure you've seen it at all. This was one of those times.
Crows aren't generally known for being kind and loving. Their reputation leans more toward being one of nature's more notorious pranksters, recognized for their cunning intelligence, but not their maternal affection for babes not their own. (They generally display their lack of affection by eating those babes.)
So when I saw a mama crow feed a baby cowbird, I was stunned. It first fed its own wing-flapping, look-alike youngster, then a few seconds later, turned and fed the much smaller baby cowbird that sat right beside it.
If you aren't a bird person, this likely means little to you, but it was shocking to see a bird as brainy as a crow being taken in by an avian brood parasite. (That's the technical term, not my own. I'd prefer "creative parenting opportunist.")
Cowbirds are one of the most common avian brood parasites. The expectant parasite mother bird will find a nest with eggs and, after removing one of the host's eggs, will lay one of her own to replace it. Since her offspring generally has a shorter egg incubation period than that of the bird she has chosen, her egg will often hatch first, giving her baby a head start on growth, basically guaranteeing their survival over the others because her babe will be bigger and more developed, and can grab more food than the others.
It would be easy to think ill of the cowbird for being a lazy and irresponsible parent, but their resilience is something to admire. Consider for a moment what Mama Cowbird goes through: You're in labor and know delivery is immanent, yet before you can give birth, you must first find an untended cradle, remove the baby, give birth to your own offspring, then recover enough to leave before the mother returns.
My parents once raised a cowbird whose mother had been desperate enough to leave her largish egg in a tiny phoebe's nest. When it was just a few days old, the big baby fell out, breaking its leg in the fall.
Squeaky, as he was eventually named, didn't heal well enough to support his bum leg, so he could never fly. (Actually, he could fly. He just couldn't land. When he did, he kind of pitched forward onto his face.) Instead of going free, Squeaky ended up spending his entire long life in a cage, eating ice cream with vigor and singing in a voice that sounded like air being released from a pinched-off balloon.