I’ve seen a lot of weird parenting lately, and not just at Walmart. Many Maine birds have an odd way of raising kids.
The majority of birds stick to the traditional model: two parents raising the family together. The parents may be mated for life or just the season, but they are committed until the young are on their own. That’s not to say that they are strictly monogamous. Many species are known to fool around.
However, there are a whole bunch of birds that do things differently. Think about any bird that looks like a chicken. This group includes barnyard fowl, grouse, turkeys, pheasants and quail. In almost every case, males mate by occupying a territory and copulating with as many females as possible. After the deed is done, the father’s responsibility ends. The mother is on her own to raise the brood.
I can find only one exception to this rule: the willow ptarmigan. This grouse-like bird of northern Canada establishes a monogamous bond, and both genders raise the chicks while defending territory. In some instances, a particularly virile male may have two wives, and he vigorously protects both nests. Is it worth it?
Most ducks form a pair bond that lasts only through courtship. Rather than defend a territory, males defend mates, warding off the romantic advances of other males until the eggs are laid. But before the first egg hatches, Dad leaves. To help guard their large broods, some ducks form creches, bringing together two or more families under the watchful eyes of multiple moms and helpful aunts.
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Geese partners are much more apt to stay together. Some, including Canada geese, mate for life. Both partners nurture the youngsters.
Male hummingbirds are deadbeat dads. They play no role in raising the family. In fact, if he ventures near, the female is apt to chase him away.
Atlantic puffins and their relatives demonstrate unusual parenting behavior. Four members of this family nest in Maine, and all are devoted parents, right up until the chick leaves the nest. In the case of puffins, the single chick leaves its burrow at night, walks to the ocean alone, and swims away unattended by either parent. It won’t touch land for four years.
Razorbills also lay just one egg per year. When the chick is ready to go to sea, it’s Dad who leads the way and feeds the youngster. Mom stays behind for another week or so, recovering her strength. She’s done.
The common murre father also leads the chick to sea and continues to tend it without help from Mom. However, this chick’s departure from the nest can be dramatic. Murres nest on open ledges, laying a pointed egg that won’t roll off the cliff. When the flightless chick is ready to go to sea, it hurls itself off the precipice, gliding and bouncing off the rocks all the way to the water.
Unlike its cousins, the black guillemot might lay two eggs. Both parents care for the chicks right up until they fledge. Once at sea, the youngsters can feed themselves and are totally on their own.
House wrens are petite, the size of your thumb. Nonetheless, they have one of the largest breeding ranges in the Western Hemisphere, from Bangor backyards all the way to South America. Why? Maybe because this tiny bird is mean!
The male house wren builds several nests, hoping to entice a female into choosing one. The pair mates for only one season. Even after the eggs have been laid, the male may compete for a second female. About half the time, he defeats his rival, destroys any eggs from that brood, and starts again with his second wife, while still defending the first. House wrens will even disrupt or destroy the nests of other species nearby, just to guarantee themselves control of the local food resources. They are bold around people and have been known to nest in flower pots on porches.
On the other hand, barn swallows believe in cooperation. Not only do both parents build the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the nestlings, but they often get help from other swallows in the barn as well. These surrogate aunts and uncles may take a turn keeping the eggs warm.
Then there are spotted sandpipers, which are often seen flitting along Maine’s coast, rivers and lakeside edges. The female lays her eggs, then leaves. The father incubates the eggs and raises his family alone.
It all makes those dysfunctional families on television sitcoms seem normal, huh?
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.