Fathers Day is creeping up, and now that you’ve learned some about the Dads residing at the Houston Zoo, it’s time to finally pin down the perfect plan for that special dad in your life. As always, we are looking out for you and know not only the perfect gift, but the perfect way to celebrate too.
You’ve probably gotten dad a striped tie or two, some tools and lawn equipment (how fun for him!) and a lunch at The Olive Garden, but this year you need to break out of the box and get creative. The answer? Name a Houston Toad after him!
Houston Toads are a critically endangered species that, once native to Houston, now reside only in a small portion of Texas west of our city. The Houston Zoo’s conservation department has developed a Houston Toad program with hopes to increase their dwindling population and boost their likelihood of survival in the wild.
Now that you’ve got the gift down, we have the perfect way to spend Fathers Day – our TOAD-ally Awesome Fathers Day event taking place on Sunday, June 19 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. at the Reflection Pool. You’ll have a chance to introduce dad to one of those special Houston Toads, and you can partake in some TOADally awesome crafts and activities – all FREE with your Zoo admission!
The Houston Toad - Some names we've gotten so far include Sticky, Lord Mittens, Mongo and Mr.Chuckluck!
Can’t get enough toads in your life? Join us for special Toad Tracker Wild Winks taking place June 30, July 21 and August 13. These are one-of-a-kind overnight experiences where you will get to track toads on the Houston Zoo grounds at night. It could even be a good bonding experience with dad! Click here for more details.
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 ZooBird 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“?
Dad and chick
The happy family at meal time. Dad is providing a mealworm.
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.
Raising two chicks is a big task!
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.
Darwin, incubating his food bowl.
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.
Danny, preparing to feed a turaco chick.
Joshua, with a tiny duckling.
Jeremy, teaching a kingfisher fledgling to eat on its own.
A better look at that turaco chick, because no one puts baby in a corner.
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.
Blue-crowned Laughing Thrush
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
This year in honor of Father’s Day we are having a TOAD-ally Awesome Father’s Day event at the zoo and giving you a chance to name a Houston Toad in honor of Dad.
We have a lot of dads here at the Zoo and they come in (literally!) all shapes and sizes. In the animal kingdom there is a great deal of variation in the level of paternal care given by dads. Male seahorses, for instance, carry the eggs of their offspring inside their bodies, then hatch them and give birth to their live babies. I know, weird, right?
Male seahorses carry the eggs of their young and then give birth to them. This is called ovoviviparity. Use THAT word in your next scrabble game!
Then there are the multitudes of dads in the animal kindom that “Conceive and Leave” as my colleague put it and have zero involvement in the care or rearing of their young. Many other species fall somewhere between those polar opposites.
But this blog isn’t about fish, even ones as amazing and mind-blowing as seahorses. No, this is a blog about primates. Otherwise I would have to change the title, and frankly it took me several long, agonizing seconds to come up with this one.
The natural history of a species dictates the paternal and maternal roles, and within the primate group, the entire spectrum of care is exhibited. Primates are nothing if not adaptable, though, so even within a species, individuals may show more or less paternal care than is usual or expected.
Orangutans, for example, generally have little or nothing do do with their offspring. Our male Doc, however, not only tolerates, but often enjoys the company of his son Solaris. (Doc is also the father of our newest baby, Aurora.) Doc and Solaris even wrestle and play together once in a while.
Solaris and his dad Doc have a laugh together.
Some of the smallest primates, on the other hand, make the best dads. Among the many species of marmosets and tamarins, it’s the dads who carry the kids around and provide day care. Mom is there to provide milk and attend the PTA meetings, but dad is the main caregiver and transporter.
A pygmy marmoset dad and baby. Caution: The cuteness of this photo could cause permanent retinal damage!
And speaking of Dad-Of-The-Year awards, siamang dads are well-deserving. Like tamarins and marmosets, siamang dads are very involved in the lives of their youngsters. And since siamangs don’t leave for college until they are eight or nine years old, it’s a fair commitment on dad’s (and mom’s, too) part. Siamangs dads help moms carry their offspring from about 8 months until about two years, at which time the kid usually gets her first car and is embarrassed to be seen with either parent.
Our male siamang Boomer sadly recently passed away, but he was a prime example of a great siamang dad to his daughters Raya and Leela. Baby Leela plays on top of Dad Boomer while Mom Jambi looks on.
Siamangs and tamarins are (mostly) monogamous, so the male can pretty much count on his mate’s offspring having his genes. It is to his advantage, then, to put a lot of effort into making sure the kid prospers and goes on to marry the football captain.
Chimps, on the other hand, live in large multi-male, multi-female groups, and since the ladies don’t “limit their options”, so to speak, it’s basically anybody’s guess who the kids belong to. Most of the time, child care is up to mom, but as the kids grow and learn how to be chimps, the involvement of the adult males is important. Big brothers especially, play with and look out for their younger siblings, but most big males, even the tough guys, enjoy playing with the youngsters.
Willie the Kid and two adult males play with each other. One of them is his dad, but since we didn't show them the genetic test results, they don't know that. In the foreground, Willie's mom Lulu wonders when she might expect dinner to be served .
It has even been recorded more than once in the wild that seemingly unrelated adult males have “adopted” very young kids when they have lost their moms. They will protect and even carry the infants through the forest, looking out for them as best they can. Now if that doesn’t warm your heart this Father’s Day, nothing will!
Happy Father’s Day to all you Dad’s out there looking out for your little ones!
Celebrate Dad by giving him a memorable Father’s Day gift this year–name a Houston Toad after him! With your gift, you help support the 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.
In honor of Father’s Day, I thought I’d take a break from writing about African Forest construction for a tribute to dads, particularly those of the animal kingdom. At first glance, many people think of animal dads as not so important – don’t they all just run around fighting over territory and trying to have as many kids as possible? As usual for the animal kingdom, these things are never as simple as producers of 30 minute documentaries would like you to believe.
Let’s start with tamarins and marmosets, small monkeys native to South America. Tamarins live in family groups made up of a pair and their young offspring. Every year the female gives birth to twins, which is quite rare among primates. These kids can weigh up to 10% of her body weight and they have to be carried 24 hours a day. You don’t have to be a primatologist to see what a burden this could be. Lucky for her though, the male steps in almost immediately to help. He carries the infants around most of the time (sharing with the older siblings if there are any) so that all the female has to do is feed them. This is not just helpful, it’s essential – those babies won’t survive without his help.
photo by Houston Zoo Natural Encounters Staff
One of my favorite animal dad stories is an exception to the rule. We have a family of orangutans here at the zoo that many you know – mom Kelly, dad Doc, and their son Solaris, who reside at Wortham World of Primates. Orangutans are also a bit unusual among primates because they are semi-solitary – this means they spend most of their time alone, rather than in large groups like gorillas and chimpanzees. In fact, adult male and females only meet every 8 or so years to breed! Kids stay with their mothers for 8 years or more and are totally dependent on her to learn how to survive and this is the only real orangutan social group.
Here at the zoo we try to manage our orangutans similar to how they would live in the wild – we let them spend time alone and some time together. Doc and Kelly are a compatible pair and often go outside together during the day. As soon as Solaris was old enough to move around on his own, he was fascinated with Doc. Kelly, however, instinctively protected Solaris and would not allow him to approach Doc. For months we watched Solaris try to sneak off to see Doc and then Kelly would drag him back to “safety.” All the while Doc just sat there, with the look of indifference that only a male orangutan can master. But Solaris was determined, and one day Kelly gave in. The result was one of the most endearing scenes of my career – a 300+ pound dad playing with his tiny son.
photo by Houston Zoo Primate Staff
One could argue that male orangutans have no paternal instincts and in the wild, these two would have probably never met. But here at the zoo father and son were lucky enough to find each other and contradict much of what we thought we knew about animal behavior. I love it when they teach us something we thought we already knew.
I was lucky to spend last week with my dad, who I don’t get to see often enough because this job that I love so much has also taken me far from home. If you’re lucky enough to spend today with your dad, make the most of it (shameless plug here – why not take him to the zoo!). And if you’re not one of those lucky ones then take a minute to appreciate the good fathers you know – both the human and non-human varieties.