Sunday, June 17, 2012

On Parents, Especially Fathers

 [Above and below, Fish Crow finds its way under a Piping Plover nest exclosure, grabs a chick that hatched only this morning, and makes off with it. Cape May Point, NJ today.]

I wonder how much of our desire to protect birds comes from the parenting instinct. Certainly, the small group of us who happened to be present to witness the death of a Piping Plover chick in South Cape May today felt an urgent desire to protect it, though we lacked the means. I, for one, eyed the distance to the Fish Crows and thought of my RWS Diana precision air rifle. If I'd had it with me, the crow would have been gull bait. The plover parents, meanwhile, alternately flew at the crows and performed piteous distraction displays. Which worked not at all. And I doubt whether a stouter exclosure would have made a difference in the end, because the crows seemed to have learned to wait until the the plover chicks leave and often grab them then.

[Least Terns drive off a potentially marauding immature Herring Gull this afternoon in South Cape May, NJ.]

Like parents, we want to protect and care for the birds we love. June is the month to watch birds doing just this - from a bird or birder perspective, Father's Day is better timed than Mother's Day, because by late June, almost all birds are fathers or mothers of the young of this year, and now is when we can watch their efforts to raise them.

I wonder how the Piping Plover today would have faired if its nest had been closer to the Least Tern colony. The terns don't take anything from bigger birds when it comes to defending their airspace, and how I wished one or many would sail over like drone aircraft and take out the enemy Fish Crows. Which, in their defense, have to eat too, and may have young of their own to feed now. But I'd sacrifice a few Fish Crows for a Piping Plover any day. I'm concerned that this is a cultural thing with the Fish Crows of Cape May Point, and now that they even have figured out how to get under the exclosures, it will be very difficult for the puffball plover chicks to escape.

 [American Oystercatcher feeds its chick a tiny mole crab, grabbed from the surf line at South Cape May today.]

There's something to be said for having powerful, aggressive parents. Last summer, while up in Alaska, we ran into Denver Holt while we were watching Snowy Owls at their nests. Denver told us that the most successful Snowy Owl fathers, when it comes to raising young, were the most aggressive ones. If, when he approached a nest to band the young, the male attacked ferociously, that was an excellent predictor of a successful brood.

The upshot is you want a big, badass dad, and mom. 

I suspect the American Oystercatchers do better with the crows than the plovers simply because the pound and a half oystercatcher weighs as much as two Fish Crows, and comes with a sword of a bill.

 [American Robin feeds its recently fledged young, Forsythe NWR late last week.]

Then there's all the teaching that goes into parenting. Plovers hatch knowing how to find their own food, but they still need Mom and Dad to learn about predators. Songbird babies, like robins or grackles, demand much more, being fed in the nest and after they're out of it, as well as learning by following their parents how to find food. And in the case of males, learning their song from their Dad and other adult males nearby.

 [Fledgling Common Grackle follows a parent and demands food, Cape May Point State Park today.]

 [I've been seeing Black-crowned Night-herons out and about in full daylight of late, suggesting that they have young in the nest to feed and so cannot get away with foraging just at dusk, dawn and at night. Like parents in hard times, they effectively take a second shift, working overtime. This one was at Tuckerton on Saturday.]

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