Different Parenting Strategies for Different Birds: Celebrate Diversity!

Different Parenting Strategies for Different Birds: Celebrate Diversity!

Over the last several decades, humans have grown more accustomed to the idea of different parenting strategies. It turns out that birds have been using different parenting strategies for forever. Note that in one of my Crow Nickel novels, Hunters of the Feather, we learn that the Great Mother Bird let the breeding pairs choose different gifts to increase their chances of survival when the land was breaking apart. Of course, that’s fiction. But reality is just as wonderful and full of variety.

Cooperative parenting. I have to start with my crows, of course! Crows and many other corvids don’t chase off their chicks, but encourage offspring from prior clutches to stick around to help raise the next few years’ worth of nestlings. The helper crows learn how to take care of chicks, while the breeding pair gets babysitting.

American crow, David Kaplan

Communal parenting. Ostriches prepare a scrape, their version of a nest, which is really just a scrape in the ground, so it’s aptly named. Several females will lay eggs in it. The females incubate the eggs during the day, while the males tend to the scrape at night.

Ostrich with eggs, photo taken by Sanu N.

Male-female pairs, in shifts, with the assistance of the community. The Emperor penguins of Antarctica take this approach, bonding with a mate, but also using the flock for assistance. After the female lays the egg, the male takes it between his webbed feet to keep it warm. Then the females go off to fish – this requires a long waddle to the water, and then time at sea – while the males huddle together and keep moving for warmth. Then the females return and take over.

Ian Duffy, Emperor Penguins in Antarctica

Male-female pairs, with less reliance on the community. More penguins! African penguins (check out my review of Penguin Town) breed in Africa, so they do not have to huddle together for warmth (instead, these days, heat is a danger). Therefore, they form pairs that each raises a pair of chicks. The parents take turns fishing to feed themselves and to return to the nest to feed and to tend the chicks.

African penguins are smaller and have a spot of pink instead of yellow

The parents share, but their duties are not the same. For example, female robins do the incubating, but the males help with feeding. This sounds very like the traditional human arrangement.

American robin

Female going it alone. In the tropics, where insects are plentiful, females often tend their nests themselves. Some males may perform elaborate dances to persuade a female they are worthy. See Dancing with the Birds for great examples of this! But in many species, females – such as hummingbirds – go it alone. This is easier to do when they live in places where insects are plentiful.

Males raising the young. Females, by definition, lay the eggs, but they sometimes leave them for the males to incubate and to raise. This is true of emus; the fathers raise the young.

Black swan, JJ Harrison

Male-male pair bonds. Black swan families have many male-male pair bonds. They will invite a female for reproduction, because, by definition, you need a lady for eggs. However, after that they chase her off and raise the chicks themselves.

As there are something like 10,000 species of birds, I’m certain these are just a few parenting strategies. Note that these are explored in Scavengers of Mind, the newest volume in the Crow Nickels and a sequel to Hunters to the Feather.

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather.

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