A couple of weeks ago, as I celebrated my first Father’s Day by sharing a loungy morning on the deck with my wife and four-month-old son, I thought about what it takes to be a great dad. Looking up at one point, I noticed that I wasn’t the only new dad at my house.
The Carolina Wren nest in the flower box next to our back door was obviously hatching, as the attending parent was suddenly carrying food whenever they disappeared among the petunias and salvias. This got me thinking about the great dads in the bird world, dads who might serve as role models as I develop my own fathering behaviors. Maybe I needed look no further than this very Carolina Wren, who chose our busy back deck to raise his family.
Well, not so much. It turns out the male wrens let the females do all of the incubating, while they spend that period preening and singing. With a Broadway-worthy ability to belt out a tune straight from the diaphragm, there’s nothing a male Carolina Wren likes more than singing.
So I had to look further afield for my role model. Luckily, a recent and very unlikely Cape sighting of a spectacular, breeding plumaged Red Phalarope reminded me about the progressive natural history of these unique Arctic nesting shorebirds. Wellfleet Bay bird bander James Junda stumbled across the stunning, bright red sandpiper on Harding’s Beach in Chatham. East coast birders are lucky if they see a handful of gray, winter plumaged Red Phalaropes from boats each fall, so this was a bizarre sighting in many ways.
Phalaropes are famous already for their dizzy, frenetic feeding behavior where they spin in circles, creating vortices that bring their aquatic invertebrate prey to the surface. But all three species of phalaropes are also well known for brazenly flouting the perceived biological norms - not only do the males do all of the parenting, but the females also have the brighter plumages. The dads do all of the incubation, nest defense, and chick rearing. After egg-laying, the female moves on, at which point I assume she travels to Italy and India to take new lovers, try new foods, and really find herself (please note that I didn’t check the published research on this). Ok, what she really does is mate with new males in other territories in a rare mating system known as “polyandry”, or one female, many males. In some species this mating system is known as “Zsa Zsa Gabor”.
You don’t need to head to the Arctic to find examples of great dads in the shorebird world. A few years ago one of my research staff was monitoring a Piping Plover nest on a sleepy, private beach in Truro, expecting the nest to hatch any second. As she approached the nest with hope in her heart, she instead found the female dead on the beach, a victim most likely of an unleashed pet dog. While many males would have considered abandoning the nest, this guy said “no, I’ve got this”. When the first two eggs hatched, he successfully divided his time between herding and protecting the very mobile new chicks and incubating the remaining eggs. Eventually all four eggs hatched, and, battling a daily onslaught of dog walkers, crows, and swarming grackles, this plover super dad persevered and eventually all four of his chicks safely fledged and migrated.
So if your human parenting role models leave a little to be desired, it might be time to look to the birds - you backyard or local beach just might be hosting an unheralded, feathered candidate for father of the year.
This piece first aired in June 2018.