They are attentive parents, building nests, feeding chicks and even showing their young how to sing.
Tally up the good dads and the bad dads in the animal world, and mammals come up surprisingly short. Males provide direct care of their young in less than 5% of mammal species. Some mammals, like grizzly bears, are notoriously bad dads, known to kill their own cubs…most mammal fathers are deadbeats with a “love ’em and leave ’em” approach, sticking around only to mate.
Then there are birds. For our avian friends, attentive care of the young by both males and females is the norm. True, females shoulder the full parenting load in a few avian families, such as hummingbirds. But in some 90% of bird species, the males stay around to help: They share the duties of nest-building, incubate eggs, feed brooding females and the chicks, even train their young for independent life. Birds, in short, have a system of parenting not unlike our own, despite being separated from us by some 300 million years of evolutionary history…
How could creatures whose brains are so much smaller than ours and so different from them possibly be clever? …In the past two decades or so, we’ve learned that some species of birds have relatively large brains for their body size, just as we do…Birds teach. They learn. They solve problems. They make tools. They count. They remember where they put things. They deceive and cheat. They argue and console.
And they parent—most often together, with an equitable division of labor between nest and “office.” Many birds share incubation duties. Male and female double-crested cormorants swap that role about once an hour, so that the stay-at-home parent gets a chance to forage for itself. Woodpeckers relieve one another during the day, but the male alone incubates at night.
Some male birds go to extraordinary lengths not just to find food for their young but to participate in the actual feeding. The anhinga, or snakebird, which is found in the southern swamplands of the Americas, puts his whole mouth and neck into it, creating a kind of feeding tube to efficiently deliver partially digested fish down the throats of his young. (The chicks are soon shoving their heads down their dad’s beak to speed up the process.)
The Namaqua sandgrouse, which lives in the driest regions of southern Africa, acts as a living flask for his brood: A male bird flies up to 20 miles to find a watering hole in which to soak his belly feathers, absorbing a few tablespoons of water—then flies back to his chicks to let them drink from his feathers… [Read more…]