Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of being a bird keeper is the sheer amount of diversity in natural behavior we see in the animals. It’s also daunting. Each species is a little different, they may prefer to nest on the ground, on a platform high in the exhibit, in a small nest cup, precariously perched on several delicately balanced twigs, in a cavity, or in an intricate nest they’ve woven themselves. They might prefer fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds, meat or nectar. Their social structures can vary so greatly I am not even going to attempt to list the prominent examples. The Houston Zoo Bird Department houses approximately 230 different species. That’s not the individual animal total (which is around 900, by the way), it’s how many different types of birds we care for every day, each one varying in large and small ways.
This means we see all kinds of avian fathers, from the good, the bad and the ugly. Captivity is a little different. If the normal breeding behavior of a male is to mate and leave, keepers have to follow the breeding cycle of the birds closely and then act appropriately to the situation. Do we keep the dad in the area with the female while she incubates the eggs? In this particular species, does the male help incubate? Does the male help raise the young? Will the male show aggression to juveniles once they’ve left the nest? There’s a myriad of questions for each situation. Fortunately, sheer diversity in behavior provides me with so many weird and wonderful stories of avian fatherhood.
Not all mommy birds are June Cleavers. In mammals, the female produces milk and feeds the young, but a male bird can do everything a female bird can, except lay eggs. This results in male birds typically being very involved in the raising of their young, because they can have a tangible and direct hand in the success of the offspring. Monogamy is quite rare in other groups of animals, but over 90% of birds form monogamous pairings, for at least one breeding season. This pairing doesn’t just involve the male gathering food for the chicks. Often, male birds help in the construction of nests, incubation of the eggs, and feeding the young while in the nest and even after fledging, as well as defending their nest and territory.
Hornbills take this monogamy to an extreme. Before laying eggs, a female hornbill of the subfamily Bucerotinae, such as our Rhinoceros Hornbills, will enter into a tree cavity and begin to “mud” herself in, sometimes assisted by the male. Essentially, sticky material such as mud, food and fecal matter is gathered and plastered around the opening of the cavity, until the opening is just large enough for the female to fit into the cavity. At this point, the female enters the cavity and the opening is almost completely sealed shut, except for a small slit, conveniently beak-sized.
At this point, the female is entirely dependent on her mate to provide her with food while she incubates the eggs, for approximately 40 days. Once the chicks hatch, both mother and babies are fully dependent on the food brought to the nest by the father. When the chicks are large enough to leave the nest, the male and the female chip away at the sealed entrance and the brood makes a break for it. Meanwhile, the father continues to support the family by collecting food for the female and chicks. Talk about a breadwinner!
Our male Sunbittern male has all the traits of a good father. He’s a great provider and very protective of his family.
What this video doesn’t show is how much this bird prepares for a chick. Once the egg hatches, the baby gets the lion’s share of the food, and the parents won’t eat anything until the chick is full. This equates to some lean times ahead for dad, so once an egg is laid, keeper staff are greeted in the morning with a male Sunbittern, standing at the door of the kitchen, waiting to be tossed food. We oblige, of course. During this time, he’s bulking up! Once the chick arrives, the male does the same, except instead of scarfing down the food himself to prepare for the fast, he brings the food straight to the chick on the platform, and won’t stop ‘demanding’ food until that chick is content. Would you like to reconsider your idea of “bird brain“?
If you’ve watched March of the Penguins, (and if you haven’t, you MUST!) you know that penguin dads (and moms) are fantastic parents, in some species bringing themselves to the brink of starvation to care for their eggs and young.
In the avian world, there are few things more endearing than the single father. In some species of birds, the male is the sole caregiver for not only the chicks, but the eggs as well. Darwin, our Double-wattled Cassowary, is a wonderful and larger than life example. Cassowaries are solitary animals, and they only come together for breeding. Once the female has laid her eggs in the nest the male constructed, she takes off to find herself another male with another nest. The previous male is left to incubate the eggs and care for the young.
When incubating, the cassowary is so dedicated that, despite all scientific reasoning, he spends approximately 53 days without leaving the nest, without even STANDING UP. He doesn’t eat, or take in much water, and somehow, he doesn’t even use the bathroom. It’s like he goes into a torpor of fatherly devotion. Once those eggs hatch, it’s been said by many that the only thing meaner than a female cassowary is a male cassowary, once you come between him and his chicks.
Darwin, our own cassowary, recently decided it was time for him to become a father. Unfortunately, Darwin’s mate is still on the horizon, and there were no eggs to be had. Paternal instinct fueling invention, Darwin took his large green food bowl, flipped it over, and began to incubate the bowl in earnest. Keepers have begun feeding him in a bowl that cannot be moved, as it became impossible to feed the bird. In a frenzy of devotion to his “egg”, the most food-motivated bird I have ever known, refused to eat, as any good cassowary dad should.
As the title says, it takes all kinds in the world of birds, and I would be remiss not to mention all the keepers in my department that step in to play the role of “Dad”. Not all bird fathers have feathers. We frequently, for one reason or another, have to hand raise baby birds, and all of our bird keepers have had a go at being a parent.
Finally, I couldn’t write this blog without mentioning a bird near and dear to many of our staff. While he never got to be a father, he was the most generous bird dad I’ve been privileged to witness. As I mentioned above, we take care of 900 animals. It’s not common for bird keepers to get particularly attached to any one bird, as the less interaction we have with them and the more “wild” they are, the better. However, sometimes a bird comes along with some quirks that you just can’t ignore, and they take root in a special place in your heart. Our male Blue-crowned Laughing Thrush did just that.
This bird’s paternal instinct was so ingrained, that all baby birds were his babies. He lived a good long life in our Tropical Rainforest exhibit, and anytime a chick hatched, he was there, attempting to feed it, much to the chagrin of many a protective feathered parent in the vicinity. That’s not to mention that most dove chicks never understood why they were being given worms, instead of their normal diet of crop milk. However, some birds took advantage of his paternal ways, and our adult lorikeets were treated to a worm by the Laughing Thrush every time they squeaked like a nestling.
Several weeks ago, the Bird Department was saddened by the death of his mate. Throughout his last weeks, the Laughing Thrush seemed to decline without his female by his side, and surrounded by a red-eyed and sniffling bird staff, he left us. We remember him fondly and it’s only fitting that he is mentioned whenever the subject of avian fatherhood is discussed.
Celebrate Dad by giving him a memorable Father’s Day gift this year – name a Houston Toad after him! With your gift, you help us support Houston Toads, a critically endangered species native to Texas. Click here to learn more about Houston Toads and how you can further the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts that help ensure their survival. [www.houstonzoo.org/name-a-toad]
Come visit the newly-named toads on June 19 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. as we celebrate a TOAD-ally Awesome Father’s Day at the Houston Zoo. This fun, family event will be filled with crafts, activities, Houston Toad info and much more! This event is FREE with your paid Zoo admission
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