Opening the Social Gateway: Early Vocal and Social Sensitivities in Brown-Headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)


Meredith J. West Department of Psychology, 1101 E. 10th Street, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA. E-mail:


The organization of cowbird (Molothrus ater) social groups affords individuals living in the groups different opportunities for learning and also structures trajectories of social development. Here, we studied the influence of adults on social organization of very young cowbirds. In three experiments, we housed juvenile birds in large, seminatural environments that either contained or did not contain adult conspecifics. We then observed the social associations and vocalizations of juveniles in each environment. The presence of adults in the social environment influenced the assortment and singing patterns of juveniles, although throughout the three experiments adults rarely interacted physically with juveniles. Juveniles housed with adults interacted with other juveniles more often and sang significantly less often than juveniles housed without adults. Effects of adult presence or absence on social organization and singing patterns emerged extremely rapidly and could be reversed quickly. Taken as a whole, the experiments revealed that very young cowbirds, in the first days of independence from their hosts, were sensitive to, and reacted rapidly to, the composition of their social environment. Specifically, presence of other age classes of individuals within the group increased juvenile associations and delayed production of vocalizations by juvenile males. Self-organization within the social group produced different social environments, which could in turn create different gateways for social learning and vocal development.