Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published June 1, 2014 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Sandhill Cranes

Some bird fathers, such as this Sandhill Crane take an active role in heir raising, while others just put on a good show.

Father’s Day

Snowy EgretFather: Everyone has one, or at least had one at one time, and some children have more than one, often called step-fathers. While the day of father celebration has never achieved the success for commercial exploitation that Mother’s Day has, it was trade groups that benefit from the holiday that promoted it: manufacturers of ties, tobacco purveyors, and men’s wear retailers. They finally succeeded in having Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June, made a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972, fifty-eight years after Mother’s Day was officially recognized.

Credit for first starting the effort to create a day for fathers is generally given to Sonora Smart Dodd, whose father was a Civil War veteran single parent who raised six children. She began her effort after hearing a sermon about Mother’s Day in 1910, when she decided fathers should also be celebrated. Several presidents from Wilson to Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation to create the holiday, but were rebuffed by recalcitrant congresses. It seems some things never change.

Wild TurkeyAs one might suspect, birds also have fathers. But as with humans, bird fathers play many different roles when preparing for fatherhood and interacting with their offspring. Virtually all male birds actively engage in courtship and put their full effort into winning fair maid, usually by elaborate display, like the Snowy Egret (top, left) straining with all his might to spread his plumes and prove his worthiness to father baby egrets.

While many species are monogamous and devote all of their effort and attention to impressing just one prospective mate, others, such as this tom Wild Turkey (right), put all their effort into winning as Purple Gallinulesmany mates as possible thereby hoping to breed often with as many different females as will be impressed by their display. For all males, human and bird, the goal seems to be the same: copulation. And this male Purple Gallinule (right) has just succeeded in accomplishing his goal. With many species of birds, that function ends the male’s participation in the entire heir raising business. Gallinaceous birds and hummingbirds are particularly well known for their “love them and leave them” approach to rearing young, and their females are virtually always single parents.

Pileated WoodpeckerBut for most species the task of successfully passing on their genes is so arduous that the males stick around and help with the job. Many males share the duty of nest building, incubating the eggs, or bringing food to the sitting female; while others devote their time to driving off other males of their own species, sometimes real, and sometimes imaginary, as with this Pileated Woodpecker (right) attacking his own reflection both in the car mirror and also in the car window. Poor guy couldn’t figure out which was the bigger threat. One could almost hear him thinking, “Don’t want no one mess’n with my woman!” And there is always the threat of predators that have to be driven Mockingbird chasing Red-tailed Hawkoff, no matter how big or dangerous they might be; which is why a Northern Mockingbird won’t hesitate to take on a Red-tailed Hawk (left). But note, he is careful to stay in back of and above the intruder, well away from those lethal talons.

Finally, some males, such as the Anhinga (below), help with the baby feeding chores, first bonding with the youngster very shortly after hatching so the baby will be familiar with the food delivery system, then putting his whole heart and soul, (well at least his whole mouth and neck,) into forming a feeding tube so that none of the food will spill onto the floor. The larger chick gets fed first until he/she is full, then the smaller chicks follow up. Thus, if there is plenty of food, all chicks will thrive and fledge. If there is not enough food, or if the parents are not able to feed all the young, at least the larger, presumably older, chicks will survive to keep the gene pool going.

AnhingaSo, while with some males the surprisingly long and elaborate chase ends with the swift completion of the egg fertilization act, and the male is off to greener pastures elsewhere, it is the fathers who stick around, get to know and help raise the kids, and provide excellent paternal role models, that we celebrate with Father’s Day. The day may not have the same cachet as Mother’s Day, but there are certainly many fathers, both human and avian, deserving of all the respect and recognition we can give them. Now if we could only do something about those “love them and leave them” absentee fathers, who sometimes give fatherhood a bad name!?! Do you think maybe congressional action is the answer?

For a complete history of the establishment of Father’s Day, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father's_Day#History. For the most spectacular display of male bird courtship ever, see the Birds-of-Paradise Project videos at: http://www.cornell.edu/video/birds-of-paradise-project. If you are in, or will be visiting, Philadelphia, this summer the project display is on exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences until September 1, 2014. http://www.ansp.org/visit/exhibits/birds-of-paradise/. It is spectacular!   (6/1/14)

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