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!


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I like knowing that there is such variety in the habit of different birds. It's easy to lump them into one category: birds. Then assume that they all have similar behavior. But just like everything else in this world, it's never that simple.