birdnote q&a: in mothering among birds, a mix of styles

Peregrine with two-week-chicks © Ruth TaylorA MOURNING DOVE waddled across the backyard, squatted down, laid an egg, sat for a half-hour—and then, goodbye. So much for motherhood. Only 10 feet away, a phoebe kept constant guard, perched on a branch near the nest she’d built atop a stereo speaker on the porch. It all made me wonder: Which birds are attentive parents, and which not so much? (The peregrine falcon above looks pretty attentive, no?)

I asked my friend Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote public-radio program, the tour guide for our ongoing series of bird stories. (Browse all past installments.)

Anna's Hummingbird female feeding nestlings © Tom Grey‘IT’S FUNNY how some bird-moms are so involved,” Ellen replied. “Like the hummingbird that does everything from nest-building to incubation to feeding and tending the young, sometimes even having to drive the adult male away, because he is so…pesky.”  (Read: the flashily dressed male is handsome, but no help whatsoever.) That’s an Anna’s hummingbird caring for her young, above.

Of course, we’re just being flip—and what’s really going on is all part of complex evolutionary strategies for the successful perpetuation of each species.

A cowbird female doesn’t deposit her eggs in another species’ nest because she’s too lazy to build one of her own, but because it works—and has allowed the cowbird to achieve prolific annual egg production, remember?

The spotted sandpiper doesn’t just casually walk away after laying eggs, leaving the male to incubate them and tend the young for up to a month. She does it for the opportunity to breed with up to four males, each of which will raise a clutch, says BirdWeb (and she may even raise a final clutch herself).

Not to malign all sandpipers: In other sandpiper species, like the familiar killdeer, the female helps to raise the brood, and adult killdeer even feign injury to lure predators away from the nest.

This astonishing 2011 video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives a rare glimpse of a spoon-billed sandpiper nest in Russia, where male and female incubate the eggs on half-day shifts, before the male takes over (and the female departs) after hatching occurs.

IN SONGBIRDS, says Ellen, including our familiar bluebirds (that’s a Western pair, below), orioles, and many others, the female typically builds the nest (with male help in a wide variety of species) and incubates the eggs. But once the eggs hatch, the male and female together feed the young until—and often after—they fledge.

Western Bluebird pair at nest © Tom Grey“It makes sense evolutionarily: by working together, birds can raise more young than if only one sex provided parental care,” Ellen explains. “This has led to a monogamous mating system in the majority of birds.”

One of the most familiar (and fast-paced) of all: the American robin, where male and female both feed and care for the offspring, and then do it all again with Brood 2.

Most birds don’t mate for life, but for only one season. And yes, says Ellen, there’s the occasional “cheating,” mostly to keep the gene pool varied.

That spotted sandpiper female may have headed off in search of more males, but in some birds, males mate with more than one female. In some of these “polygynous” species, for example red-winged blackbirds, the male may contribute little or no parental care to the young birds in his harem.

Female Common Eider with chicks © Jack Stephens - High Arctic InstituteIn ducks and chicken-like birds, the female provides all parental care–making the nest, incubating the eggs, and taking care of the young. These young birds are “precocial”—they feed themselves from the very beginning, thus making male parental care less important. (That’s a common eider brood, above, and their interesting story sheds light on another facet of how families work: whether birds can tell which other individuals are their relatives, or not.)

RAPTORS generally share parental duties in a surprisingly even manner, like this. In hawks and owls, for example, explains BirdNote advising scientist Dennis Paulson, both sexes construct the nest, and the female incubates, but the male feeds her throughout that period. Shortly after the eggs hatch, both sexes participate fully in feeding the young.

It’s no short-term commitment, either. Great horned owl parents’ offspring first leave the nest at about six weeks, but can’t yet fly, for instance. The young climb out onto branches near the nest before they begin to hunt with their parents, staying with the adults into late summer or early fall to gradually acquire survival skills.

Wamboin, NSW, Australia. Male, in eclipse plumage.

And then there’s the truly woo-woo stuff, like the superb fairy-wren mom in Australia that teaches the secret password to her yolks—to the chicks in the eggs. How perfectly motherly of them, no, to sing a lullaby early and often?

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast on the player below, or by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

(Photos courtesy of BirdNote and used with permission: peregrine falcon by Ruth Taylor; Anna’s hummingbird and Western bluebirds by Tom Grey; common eiders by Jack Stephens of High Arctic Institute; superb fairy wren by David Cook Wildlife Photography. Photo below of that abandoned mourning dove egg in my backyard, by A Way to Garden.)

mourning dove egg


Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Peter Plunkett says:

    Lovely stuff, Margaret! If I remember correctly back to my college days in behavioral ecology class, the reproductive strategy of many birds correlates with the balance between predation and resource availability in the habitat where they live. In harsh conditions where lack of food or nesting sites limits the population size of the bird species, that’s where to find “polyandry” — one female with multiple husbands — and that spoon-billed sandpiper in Russia is a good example. Where resources are abundant but predation limits the population size, the strategy of polygyny is common — one male with a harem — like the ancestors of the domestic chicken. But even though Dad is not directly involved in caring for his young, he is contributing to their welfare by defending his territory from dangerous intruders and making sure his ladies have access to the food and safe nesting sites they need. And where both predation and resource competition are limiting, the most advantageous strategy is for both parents to be fully involved in raising the young for as long as it takes. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I find it to be a fascinating generalization to explain the variability in parenting behavior that birds display. It works with a lot of mammals too!

  2. Laurel Pritchard says:

    A memory from childhood: a mourning dove (s?) built a nest on the windowsill of my sister’s bedroom. We spent many weeks watching egg-laying, hatching, caring, fledging. And all the cooing, which was very relaxing. So maybe there was something amiss with that dove in your backyard? Maybe she’d just had it with motherhood?

  3. bill bowen says:

    ok so why does the morning dove lay its egg and walk away? learned lots, but that’s why i started reading this.

  4. Laurie Constant says:

    Has anyone any ideas on how I can keep ants from polluting my Hummingbird feeders? Once they start to get into the feeders the hummingbirds stop coming to feed..

    1. Pat says:

      Get feeders that have ANT MOATS like the “Hummzinger” that I believe is based on a design developed by the Cornell Ornithology Lab. You have to keep the moats filled with water, but I’ve had good results with them. Bonus: Goldfinches come to the feeders to drink the water out of the moats. They land sideways on the hanging rod and shimmy down until they can reach the water to take a sip. After the Hummers leave in October, I keep the feeders up filled with water for the Goldfinches, until freezing temps set in.

  5. Marlene Gakle says:

    We have a mourning dove nesting in a hanging basket on the deck. It looked like mom and dad were teaching the kids how to fly this morning…

  6. Pam says:

    Incredible bird content with valuable links. I think this is one of your best blog posts yet.

    My garden is filled with bird song and the busy motion of parents attending to their fledglings. Just yesterday morning I wondered what mysterious bird was hopping around with a blond mustache. Upon closer inspection I realized it was a junco with dog hair in it’s beak. I leave her brush on the garden bench. Fair pickings for nesting material. I am so glad that my dog, Lucy, can contribute to nest building.

    Thank you for such a fantastic blog.

  7. Beverly Scott says:

    I have a question. In our bluebird house, all 3 eggs hatched and the babies grew. When I checked a couple of weeks later, only one dead baby remained in the nest and his head was gone. It wasn’t in the nest.

    Any idea how this could have happened? He had grown enough to have some blue feathers.

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