Friday, June 17, 2016

In Praise of (Bird) Fathers

As Father’s Day approaches, obviously I can’t help but think about dads. There are all kinds of dads out there: wonderful dads, active dads, cold and distant dads, up close and personal dads, mean dads, deadbeat dads, disciplinarian dads, laidback dads - you name it!

There are also all kinds of bird dads. But, through our cultural lens, we often project our expectations of human dad behavior onto the bird world. For example, when describing birds in the process of nesting behaviors - building the nest, sitting on the nest, feeding the young’uns after they hatch - I always hear people use the pronoun “she.” In many of our minds, the human parent doing the most to manage the household and take care of babies is the mom. Sometimes our projections lead us to get quite heated about perceived fatherly neglect in the bird world. The other day I was reading in online forums about people’s experiences with killdeer nests in their yard, and one irate woman noted that the female killdeer sat on the nest 24 hours a day while her “no good husband” didn’t bother to stick around.

Fascinating, huh? Not only are we characterizing bird mating behaviors as marriage, but we’re also judging bird morality based on whether or not their actions conform to our human expectations of gender and marriage!

Once you start looking at bird behavior, you might be surprised to find that dads are integral to the nesting and caregiving processes of most bird species. They don’t just love ‘em and leave ‘em, as we may be tempted to think. Let’s take the example of the killdeer, assumed by this one woman to be a deadbeat dad. Killdeer pairs mate for life, they go around marking out potential nesting sites together, and they take pretty equal turns sitting on the nest. I know from experience with a killdeer nest in our garden that the male is much more aggressive about chasing potential threats away from the nest than the female. After the first nest hatches, the parents take the chicks away to a safer place and share the responsibility of caring for them until they can fly within about 30 days.

The northern cardinal dad is a devoted caregiver after the female incubates the eggs, feeding her and the chicks in the nest until they fledge. While the female sits on a second nest, the male continues to feed and look after the older, fledged young, while also feeding the female and guarding their territory. By the time the second set of eggs hatch, the older siblings are ready to live on their own, and the dad can turn his attention to the next brood of nestlings. It’s hard to find a male cardinal at the end of the breeding season who isn’t exhausted, with bare patches and bedraggled feathers, badly in need of a molt.

Songbird males can also serve as mentors to younger males. I’ve just recently learned how a chipping sparrow male learns to sing. He doesn’t learn from his dad. Instead, when chipping sparrows return to their breeding grounds a years after a young male hatches, he seeks out an older male in the territory he wishes to inhabit and learns that male’s song. An older male will not tolerate another adult male in his territory, but he allows this new young fellow to move in and learn his song, even knowing that that younger male may eventually seek to take over his territory.

Of course, a few birds are, in fact, deadbeat dads. Since they are so cute and beloved, you may be disappointed to know that the ruby-throated hummingbird male is one of the most neglectful. He flies around in all his ruby-throated glory and mates with one, two, three, or however many females he can find around his territory. After that, a female builds a nest, lays (typically) two eggs, and raises the chicks, all on her own. There is some probability that the male does allow her to feed in his territory without fighting her off, as he would another male, but that’s the extent of his care for her or the young. By the time the young hatch, the male has often left the territory. And then guess what happens: as soon as they’re old enough, her young will start fighting with the poor female over food sources in the territory. I’m sure the complaining woman mentioned above would have plenty to say about these ungrateful children!

So there are all kinds of bird dads, and they may or may not live up to our human standards (just like human dads). Just as it’s interesting to think about the social, cultural, economic, and other pressures that lead to certain kinds of human dad behaviors, it’s interesting to think about the territorial, food, climatic, and other kinds of factors that lead bird dads toward behaviors that will (hopefully) ensure the survival of their offspring and species. Happy Father’s Day to all dads, bird or human, with appreciation for all that you do!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Pacing Oneself

I’ve been noticing lately that the pace of nature is very slow. I started to understand this in the past few years by watching one of our cats, Lemmon, hunt mice in our house. When she detects a mouse, say, behind the stove or refrigerator, she will sit in that part of the kitchen for hours and even days at a time, waiting for it to move. She knows the mouse will come out eventually, and she’s in no hurry.

A few days ago a toad moved into the rotting old stump near my flower garden. There’s enough erosion underneath to provide room for a toad to sit in the cool mud, a happy spot that benefits from water trickling down from the bird bath that sits on top of the stump. And there’s tall grass around the stump to make for good bug and slug-hunting territory. So the toad seemed happy to be there, and I was happy to watch it for hours at a time, fascinated. One morning I sat there reading for three hours, and the toad moved one inch in all that time. Like Lemmon, it was waiting patiently for bugs and slugs to come its way.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about reproduction and loss in nature, and that speaks to another kind of slow pace in terms of the endurance and rise and fall of population sizes. This year I’m fascinated in particular by the killdeer. Our resident killdeer pair have their second nest of the season in the garden right now. The first nest, as is typical, produced four chicks. One of the chicks survived the dangers of our neighborhood and is now as big as the parents, and we await the hatching of the next four eggs. A 25% yield is pretty darn good, but knowing that 90% of baby birds don’t survive their first year makes me realize that the little chick isn’t safe yet. It’s also likely that only one or none of this next brood will survive after hatching.

In other words, successful breeding is a slow business. Over the course of their lives, these two killdeer may produce anywhere between eight to eighty eggs, and for population maintenance we can really only hope that two will survive and reproduce. That means six to seventy-eight eggs and chicks may be lost. Similarly, I saw a mallard mama in our neighborhood start spring with nine little ducklings in tow. By the end of a two-week period, they were all gone, probably because of a combination of the red fox I’ve seen in the area, the barn cats at my neighbor’s horse farm, and the enormous snapping turtles in the creek where they swam. Now she’s on her second nest, on the edge of a neighbor’s house. Yesterday he came over to tell us that rat snakes had gotten into the nest and eaten all but three of the eggs. Such a sad loss of nine-plus lives so far, with little chance that one of the remaining three chicks, if hatched, will survive and grow to adulthood. But mallards are one of the most successful species in the world in terms of expanding their range and increasing their population, so obviously Mother Nature knows what she’s doing in the end.

So the lesson learned is that nature moves slowly, producing lots and lots of young over time so that a tiny minority will survive to reproduce. But, in the meantime, that “waste” goes to feed lots of other animals so that their young will survive to reproduce as well.

All of that is hard to grasp from my human perspective, especially given that I come from a society that values speed, efficiency, and immediate gratification. The hours I spend watching wildlife are painfully slow and bearable only if I’m reading or making to-do lists or something else so that I won’t be “wasting” my time. I don’t understand why Lemmon even bothers to hunt mice, knowing that there will be a bowl of food set down in front of her three times a day by busy, efficient me. But there are age-old lessons in the slowness of nature that we should heed.

First, slow, careful work yields a lot. One day I noticed a growing pile of teeny wood shavings at the bottom of that old stump. Finally I looked for the source and realized there are ants inside, digging out passageways; each ant works hard to dig out the wood and bring the shaving to a crack in the stump to dump it out. It’s amazing how the pile has grown in a few short days! Likewise, tons of research on writing shows that a little bit of writing every day produces many times more pages over the course of the year than a fast and furious spurt of occasional writing. The tortoise and the hare principal applies in nature and in our lives, otherwise Aesop wouldn’t have bothered writing a fable about it.

Another lesson is the importance of patience. Lemmon and the toad eventually get what they want (although we always take the mouse away from poor Lemmon and release it in the field across the street), and they do so by waiting patiently, saving themselves a great deal of exertion. Needless to say, developing that kind of patience is a tough one for all of us. But how many self-help books advocate patience and endurance, setting and working toward long-term, important goals, rather than chasing after short-term goals, urgent matters, and immediate gratification? We know that kind of patience is better for our emotional, mental, and physical health.

And there are other lessons, perhaps less satisfying, about the inevitability of death and loss and grief, but also about moving on, laying the next nest, hatching the next brood, trying again, optimistic that all of those efforts will produce much over the long haul.