How Now Brown Cow…. Bird?

Although the brown-headed cowbird is a year-round resident of North Carolina, I didn’t see it until this year. The unpopular bird ate seeds on the deck long enough for me to get a photo. It is a black bird that looks like his head was dipped in brown paint. I won’t begrudge him one dinner out at my expense. The bird is disliked because it lays eggs in other birds’ nests. What a freeloader! The cowbird frolics, carefree, as the foster birds hatch and feed the interlopers as if they were their own. The only thing I like about the bird is that it takes advantage of others without forming vast bureaucracies to oversee the program.

041517 Brown-headed cowbird.jpg

According to various sources on the internet, the phrase “how now brown cow” was used in elocution lessons. It’s only as old as I am and just about as relevant. Has anyone else ever heard it?

27 thoughts on “How Now Brown Cow…. Bird?

  1. Oh yes, although I did not know the origin. I say it all the time! I have never seen this bird you show on your page, he is kind of plain isn’t he. I guess he is like our hated grackles?

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    1. According to the map on the Merlin Bird App, the cowbird is a year-round resident of Texas except for the extreme northwest corner up by Oklahoma. They are sometimes in flocks of starlings, they say. I used to see them occasionally in our yard on Long Island.

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  2. Mid-sixties and I’ve heard the phrase all my life. I’m not sure if it was a typing exercise.though listening to it now it may well have been used for elocution.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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  3. I’ve heard it forever. I like your line…”The only thing I like about the bird is that it takes advantage of others without forming vast bureaucracies to oversee the program.” So funny. So true. Well said.

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  4. “How now brown cow” – of course! Never heard of a cowbird before – thanks for the lovely nature lesson, and great pic! BTW, the thing it does with its eggs… isn’t that like a cuckoo bird? Or maybe… the opposite? I know the cuckoo is disliked for something similar, no?

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    1. The brown-headed cowbird breeds in a thin band of land across the whole southern border of Canada! I looked up the cuckoo. There was no mention of any drawback to the bird. There was one big plus — they like tent caterpillars! We must not have had many cuckoos here, because last year there were thousands of tent caterpillars in the mountain trees.

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      1. Oh that’s interesting, didn’t know that about the caterpillars. But the cuckoo, funny how I thought… well I’ll check with Google later cuz it’s bugging me. 😀

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      2. I see now that I should have been more specific. I was looking at an American bird app. We have yellow-billed cuckoos. I think you were quoting info about the common cuckoo that is native to Europe and Africa. That one does lay eggs in the nests of other birds, using a hawk’s call to scare them.

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  5. Anne,
    In our part of the world, a cuckoo would have similar behavior- in fact we learn of this in school and there are a lot of sayings about this. The cuckoo lays its eggs in a crow’s nest and thus saves up on nest space and nest building.
    I have never heard of the saying you mentioned, though. Glad to learn something new.
    Susie

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    1. My bird map shows the brown-headed cowbird is a year-round resident from southern California, swooping up to southern Maine. I saw them on Long Island, pecking around on the ground with starlings. Although they are definitely in NC, I hadn’t seen one here before. There it was, pecking at seeds on the deck! The female is gray-brown all over, according to the bird book. I never recognized the Missus.

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    1. I’d say tuck it away as a possibility. The birds don’t seem to be that plentiful. If you ever see a robin-sized bird with a brown head and black bosy, you’ll remember the name starts with brown-headed. Good luck!

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  6. You live in NC? I grew up there and think it’s just about the nicest place I’ve ever been, and with the travel I’ve done that’s saying a lot! And yup, I’ve heard the how now brown cow phrase. Not quite up with “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”, but I suppose it serves it’s purpose.

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