How do birds parent?

All birds lay eggs, but aside from that their parenting styles are as varied as can be. From building a nest to incubating eggs to feeding chicks, male and female birds take on a huge variety of roles in nesting season. Here are some of the more interesting ones to watch out for this year.

They divide the work

Vivid black and orange Baltimore Orioles are among our most colourful summer visitors, and they  also create some of the most artful nests. The female Oriole builds the nest – a delicately woven basket suspended from a high tree branch – and the male gathers building supplies for her. While the female takes on the task of incubating the eggs, the male continues to help by feeding the young until they’re ready to leave the nest.

They are single moms and dads

While it’s common for male birds to be the primary nest-builders, Northern Cardinals do the opposite. After the female builds the nest, both parents contribute to incubating and feeding their young. The female, however, might then leave to start another nest elsewhere, leaving the male responsible for caring for the chicks on his own.

They are absentee parents

Unlike most birds who play an active role in everything from nest-building to feeding, the Brown-headed Cowbird, a relative of the Grackle and the Red-winged Blackbird, lets others do the work. This absentee parent is what’s called a brood parasite, because it lays its eggs (up to 40 in a season!) in the nests of other birds, and lets them take care of the incubation and feeding.

They stick together

Sandhill cranes are considered some of the best parents by human standards, because they stick with their young for almost an entire year after hatching. Male and female Sandhill Cranes mate for life (which can be 20 years or more) and spend all year together, unlike other species that separate during the fall migration. While Sandhill Crane chicks can be ready to leave the nest within a day of hatching, they stay with their parents through the winter, often migrating together as a family again the following spring.

They have unconventional family structures

We tend to think of birds as forming nuclear families of opposite-sex couples, but this isn’t always the case. Some Great Horned Owls have been observed “alloparenting” or cooperative breeding, where one parent provides food for multiple nests simultaneously. Other birds build apartment-style nests with family members and co-parent each others’ chicks.

Happy Birding!

Urban Nature Store

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