Being A Feathered Father Can Be Tough Work
It's that time of year again. Summer is fast approaching and with it, Father's Day. Even so, the bird dads in our backyard aren't kicking back and enjoying these warm summer days. A male song sparrow lands on a tree branch to sing between trips to a hidden nest where his hungry offspring wait for the next mouthful. This is just how things are done when you are a super bird dad.
Dads of some species of the bird world provide more than just meals, though. They help build nests, incubate eggs and stick around even after the moms have left. Depending on the number of fledglings, this can be a daunting task for even two parents. On the flip side, hummingbird dads, even though glorious to look at, tend to not be quite as helpful. They do to not stick around to watch the females raise their young, leaving the entire process to Mom.
As a shout-out to the fathers with feathers that do help out around the nest, let's turn the focus on these hardworking parents.
A number of backyard bird dads, including cardinals and Baltimore orioles, spring into action once their babies are hatched, flying back and forth with food. Even after the youngsters have left the nest, bird dads feed them for several days to make sure they have the best chance of survival. And if the female starts working on a second nest before the previous brood is completely independent, the male may become super dad and take on caring for the fledglings entirely on his own.
Many males are busy parents even before the eggs hatch. Male American robins brings their female partner bits of material as she constructs the nest. At dawn, he constantly sings from a high perch as a means of protecting his territory. Without his vigilant efforts, other robins might invade and eat all the juicy bugs and worms, making it harder for the robin parents-to-be to find enough food for their future nestlings.
For downy woodpeckers, parenting is a true partnership. Both the male and female work together to carve a nest hole in a dead tree trunk or limb, taking turns chiseling away to create a safe, secure cavity. They both incubated the eggs as well. They share the parenting duties equally during the day, but at night it's usually Dad who takes over. Once the fledglings have hatched, both parents help feed them. Sometimes the male downy woodpecker will end up feeding the young more often than the female does.
Birds of prey, like hawks and owls, have a similarly balanced parenting style. Both red-tailed hawk parents build the nest, for example, but only the female does the incubating and watches over the young once the eggs hatch. The male isn't slacking off, though. It's his job to keep the food supply coming, first for the female as she sits on the egg, and then for the rest of the new family.
Reversing The Roles
Many female birds don't settle for sitting on nests all day. An example of this are the Phalaropes, small species of sandpipers. These sandpipers are a prime example of this parenting flip-flop. Females of this species are more colorful than males and take the lead in courtship. They may also have more than one mate. Whether she has one mate or several, she lays a clutch of four eggs for each of them, and leaves new dads to incubate eggs and raise young.
Spotted sandpipers, which are a common resident in ponds and streams in most of North America, have a very similar parenting technique. Spotted sandpiper dads do most of the incubating and tending to the young. The moms however are too busy laying clutches of eggs with other dads to help out.
So next time you are watching the activities of the birds in your backyard, take note. It may be the dad doing the endless hunting, feeding and rearing of the young. They along with their partner's help they build strong nests, healthy offspring and continue the cycle for next Spring!