7 great dads of the bird world
Father’s Day is about celebrating all the great dads out there – and there are plenty in the bird world. Who knows, one of these feathered fathers might remind you of someone you know…
1. Emperor Penguin
Aptenodytes forsteri (Near Threatened)
If balancing an egg on your feet for two months through the freezing Antarctic winter isn’t good parenting, we don’t know what is. The Emperor Penguin is the only penguin species where the male takes sole responsibility for incubating the egg, enveloping it in his special brood pouch and huddling with hundreds of other fathers through 200 km/h winds and temperatures of −40°C for around 64 days until the chick hatches. If the female has not returned with food by this point, the male comes to the rescue once again, secreting a fatty, protein-rich substance called “crop milk” from a gland in his oesophagus to keep the chick going. This incredible ability is only found in pigeons, flamingos and male Emperor Penguins. By the time the female returns, the exhausted male may have lost as much as 20 kg in weight.
As the climate changes, the future of this species is uncertain. The Emperor Penguin breeds almost exclusively on sea ice, which in some places is being lost at a rate of 74 km2 a year. Urgent action is needed if we want future Emperor Penguin fathers to raise their young in safety.
2. Namaqua Sandgrouse
For a bird that lives in the deserts of southern Africa, it’s even more important than usual to keep your chicks fed and watered. In the morning, when temperature is cooler, this father flies up to 30 kilometres to the nearest watering hole and wades in up to his belly, rocking from side to side for fifteen minutes until his feathers have soaked up nearly two tablespoons’ worth of water. The feathers on his belly can hold more water than a sponge thanks to special hair-like projections which trap liquid. Carrying his precious cargo, he flies back to his mate and hatchlings and lets them drink straight from his plumage. Scientists used to think this incredible feat was a myth, but this isn’t the first time a dad has exceeded people’s expectations.
3. Greater Rhea
Rhea americana (Near Threatened)
Imagine tending to 80 eggs in one enormous nest, all alone. That’s what the male Greater Rhea does, thanks to the species’ unusual breeding habits. Every year, each female moves from male to male, mating and then depositing her eggs in his nest before moving on to the next partner. So a male can find himself incubating the broods of as many as twelve females, each laying 5-10 eggs at a time. However, it’s not until hatching that the real chaos begins; regardless of when they were laid, all the eggs hatch within 36 hours of each other. It is thought that when the first young are ready to hatch, they make a special call which the others can hear, allowing them to coordinate their actions. If you’ve ever been in charge of a children’s birthday party, you’re probably familiar with the pandemonium that ensues.
Greater Rhea dads charge at anyone threatening their offspring, but they can’t protect their young from agriculture and cattle ranching, which are destroying their grassland habitat. Our Partners in the Americas are working hard to protect grassland for the Rhea and many other birds that live there.
4. Village Weaver
If you’ve ever sweated for hours over your kid’s school craft project, you’ll know how the Village Weaver feels. This tiny African bird really does weave an entire village, crafting up to 20 hanging nests out of grass, reeds or palm blades. There’s method in his madness, though – he does it to make sure his chicks get the best possible home. The female will survey his handiwork and pick her favourite nest to lay her eggs in, even helping him to complete it. But this incredible avian engineer is capable of great quality as well as great quantity. His nest has a roof, an entrance tunnel, an ante-chamber and a raised nesting chamber – a truly state-of-the-art family home.
5. Grey-headed Albatross
Thalassarche chrysostoma (Endangered)
This sleek, streamlined seabird is the ultimate ‘stay-at-home dad’ who takes on most of the parenting responsibilities, leaving the female free to pursue her career of long-distance ocean wanderer. He sits on the egg for the majority of the 72-day incubation period, hunching up against the piercing wind on his remote sub-Antarctic island. When the egg hatches, he flies hundreds of kilometres across the ocean to find food for his chick, using his huge wings to soar on the ocean’s air currents in search of squid, fish and other suitable morsels. After being fed more than half a kilogram of food a day for as long as six months, his chick finally fledges and begins a life of its own, allowing the male to take some valuable time off before reuniting with his mate two years later to start all over again.
Sadly, many albatrosses that set out in search of food never some back. Every year, hundreds are accidentally killed on the baited hooks of longline fisheries. Our Albatross Task Force is already making a huge difference, rolling out bird-friendly practices in fisheries across the world.
6. Thick-billed Murre
When a young Thick-billed Murre fledges by leaping off the nesting cliff at night it is about a third of the size of an adult, exposed to the elements and unable to fly properly. It doesn’t need to worry, however – on its first flight, dad will be right by its side. Scientists tracked one father-youngster pair from a west Greenland colony and found that they swam south together for an astonishing 3,000 km, probably calling out to each other along the way to stay in range. Dad usually sticks around for eight weeks, over which time he continues to feed and watch over his offspring. Only when his precious progeny can fend for itself does he say goodbye.
7. Human dads who take their kids birdwatching
Ask almost any bird lover how they got started, and they’ll be able to single out a special encounter – no matter how small – that really opened their eyes to birds. In today’s world, children are becoming increasingly separated from nature and the health and happiness it provides. Dads who show their children the wonders of the natural world are helping to create the conservationists of tomorrow – people who will make sure birds continue to be loved and protected for generations to come.