All-star dads in the wild

by Emily Stone
Naturalist, Educator Cable Museum of Natural History

Encouraging, teaching, hiking, rocket launching, venison stir-fry cooking, piggyback ride-giving, feeding, holding, scolding, teeth-brushing, hugging, teasing, playing, hook-baiting, fish-removing… what do these things have in common? Dads! All weekend I watched countless dads, including my own father and my older brother engaging in these activities with their kids. With Father’s Day coming up, I thought I would highlight a few all-star fathers in the wild.

Of course, not all animal fathers pay attention to their offspring. I would hazard a guess that a majority do not. In insects like ants, bees, and wasps, male “drones” are only produced once in a while when the nest is getting ready for winter, or the anthill has hit some population goal and it is ready to swarm and start new colonies. The drones mate with females, then die. The females go on to start a new hill, hive, or nest, and produce all sisters.

Duck daddy’s aren’t particularly attentive, either. How many times have you seen a female common merganser with 5-15 chicks in tow, and no male in the vicinity? White-tailed deer, black bears, and many others follow this same hands-off parenting model. I could list more but I won’t. My point was just to remind you of wild fathers who don’t stick around, so we can better appreciate the ones who do.

In contrast to ducks, male loons are the ideal new-age partner. Once researchers developed accurate ways of identifying individual loons (leg bands), they determined that males choose the nest site and females build the nest and lay the 1-3 eggs. After that, loon parents split the incubating, feeding, babysitting, and “hunter education” duties 50/50. It is such a pleasure to watch loon parents caring for their chicks. Join me on a Loon Pontoon Tour sometime so you can get a closer look, too!

Interestingly, despite this dedication to their chicks, loons do not mate for life. They are more loyal to their territory than their partner. If a new, stronger male fights and wins in a territorial battle, the resident female will stay with the new guy. Likewise, the resident male will stick around if a female intruder wins a territorial battle. In nature, good parenting does not always fit our culture’s ideals! But it must work for that species, or they wouldn’t be alive today.

Swimming with the loons in the weedy edges of the lake is another devoted father. With a name like “toe-biter,” we humans probably don’t appreciate them enough. These huge bugs (1 to 2+ inches in length) are “piercer-predators.” According to the “Bug Lady” at the UW Milwaukee Field Station, that is just “a politically correct way of saying that they grab their prey, stab it with a short, sharp beak, and inject poisonous enzymes (produced in salivary glands near the beak) that immobilize it and then liquefy its innards so the GWB [giant water bug] can slurp them out with gusto.” Giant water bugs have been known to attack a wide variety of prey, including tadpoles, frogs, fish, snakes, ducklings, woodpeckers, and yes, the occasional human toe.

Despite this bad reputation, these “true bugs,” (which to a scientist means they are in the order Hemiptera, and which we laypeople can tell by the X their wings make across their back) are very paternal.

After the insects mate, the female glues the brood of about 150 fertilized eggs onto the male’s back. The male fiercely defends the eggs for two weeks, and even strokes them gently with his hind legs. This stroking, and alternating exposure to air and water, are thought to protect them from growing mold. What a dad!

Hunting expertly in the woods is another type of father – the Super Provider. Red fox males are excellent dads. They deliver food to Mom every 4-6 hours while the kits are nursing in the den, and then continue to provide food for the kits as well (with the help of the vixen), once they are weaned. Lighthearted play becomes survival training as the foxes play “ambush” and “tag”. Then the male fox starts to reduce the amount of food he provides, in order to teach the young to hunt on their own. A fox father will even bury food near the den to teach the kits to sniff and forage.

Happy Father’s Day to all those wonderful dads out there, wild and human, who contribute so much to their offspring’s growth and development. A special thanks goes out to MY dad, Larry Stone. He is a naturalist, journalist and nature writer, and edited my high school English papers with me line-by-line, asking “What did you mean here?” and “Can you think of a clearer, shorter way to say that?” He still finds time to edit my Natural Connections articles almost every week. Thanks, Dad!


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