Beyond Your Backyard: How Animal Fathers Care for Their Young

  African Lion father with tiny cub. Photo by Nanette Wheeler-Carter.

African Lion father with tiny cub. Photo by Nanette Wheeler-Carter.

Kimberly J. Epp.

This Father's Day, let's take a moment to appreciate our Dads - and also the dads of the animal world. Some dads have no role in the care of their young, others are quite dangerous, while some help with the care, and even take lead roles.

I think that we can learn a lot from other species, and in many cases take lessons from them. We aren't the only species that feels compassion and love, fear, anxiety, sadness and depression. We are but one species, in fact we are less than 1 per cent of the species out there, yet for some reason many of us believe other animals were out on earth FOR us, rather than WITH us. One sad example is how we treat elephants, and so I will be writing a special article on Tuesday about Asian Elephants in India.

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So which animal fathers make good parents? Likely the best father award would go to the male Emperor Penguin. While the female heads back to the sea to fish, the male incubates the sole egg. The egg is balanced precariously atop of the fathers feet, nestled within a pouch in his lower body. His thick fold, densely feathered on the outside and bare inside, completely covers the egg and keeps it at a warm and even temperature - even when the temperature is well below zero.

The reason why the female must feed is because she has fasted for nearly a month. She needs to regain her body weight and renew her strength, so the male is put in charge of egg incubation. The male penguin then fasts, and once the female is fully fed, she then returns to find her mate and egg. The male is not happy to give over his egg, but he must go to feed himself.

  Emperor Penguin father and chick. Photo by Nanette Wheeler-Carter.

Emperor Penguin father and chick. Photo by Nanette Wheeler-Carter.

The female returns often before the chick hatches. If the chick has already hatched, the female is quite excited upon her arrival. She regurgitates food for her chick. If the chick is hatched prior to her arrival, the near starving male regurgitates a substance known as penguin milk. Many of these males have now fasted four and a half months, and have lost half of their body weight.

Other animals that make good fathers include wolves. These emotionial bonds with the pups and father are carried into adulthood. The fathers play with the cubs, in fact, the bonds can be seen as joyful. But in the den, or near the den, the male father really acts like a father. He hunts for his young, licks the young clean, he guards the den, protects the cubs inside, and once they are able to follow him, he teaches them the art of being wolves. So these dad's should get a father's day trophy as well for most devoted Dad.

Other fine fathers include the tiny stickleback fish, who care for the eggs until they hatch. Then the father carries the fry in his mouth. If they swim out, he will gather them back into his mouth, then spit them back to the nest. Sea horse fathers have a small pouch in their stomach. The female lays her eggs in the male's pouch. Then the male is in charge of the çare of the eggs and the tiny seahorses.

  American Bald Eagle mated pair. One of them is certaintly getting an earful! Photo by Tad Kelly.

American Bald Eagle mated pair. One of them is certaintly getting an earful! Photo by Tad Kelly.

Lions care for their cubs as the females go hunting. But only THEIR cubs. They will kill cubs that are not their own. But they do care quite loyally and lovingly for their own cubs. They let the cubs test them, play with them, and show patience not seen in other animal fathers.

  Swan mother and father with cygnets. Photo by Ole Sejfert.

Swan mother and father with cygnets. Photo by Ole Sejfert.

Swan and geese mate for life and help equally with the care of their young. Male swans also let the cygnets get ride on their backs. Both species care for other parent's cygnets and goslings. Both moms and dad American Eagles build the nest - the largest eagle nest ever built was 4,449 pounds. Male bald eagles contribute significantly to nest maintenance and chick care. Both parents help in child-rearing and feeding. Perhaps the role becomes too much for the male eagle as many commit suicide. And here we thought we were so different. Look closer, for that is far from the truth.

Thank-you to my friends who took these photos; Ole Soljfert, Tad Kelly and Nanette Wheeler-Carter. Take some time today and head out to your local watering hole, and watch the waterfowl and how they deal with their young. Time in nature is time never wasted. Enjoy the day of the Dad.
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Epp is an Environmental Educator and writer and is also the President of the Moose Jaw Nature Society. She can be reached at kepp@shaw.ca.

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