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12 Different Ways Animals Bring up Babies in the Wild
I’ve been studying the parenting styles of different animals for a new exhibition of paintings showing at my gallery at Thixendale, North Yorkshire, from June 3rd – 25th and through my intensive studies I’ve noticed how animal parents fall into distinct categories. Some are clucky, endearingly attentive to their youngster’s every need, others are pushy, urging their offspring out into the world as soon as they are able, and a few are shockingly neglectful.
Here are my observations of 12 wildly different animal parenting strategies:
1. Indulgent parents
I once spent a week crammed into a suburban Wendy house watching an urban vixen interact with her three cubs and I was struck at how patient she was. Even after a long day out hunting for their food she had time to settle amongst her energetic cubs to groom and even play with them. It was endearing to see how she managed to remain firm but gentle when disciplining them. Fox cubs have dark coats when they are born that moult and turn red when they are about four weeks old. They are also blind and deaf, with their ears sealed, for the first few weeks. During this time the vixen rarely leaves them and is normally supported by the dog fox, although this vixen appeared to be on her own. After about a month, fox cubs feed on regurgitated food that their mothers or other females bring back for them. Gradually the vixen begin to bring prey to the den until eventually the fox cubs learn how to hunt for themselves. They learn by watching their parents. Read more about how the vixen I watched had adapted to city life and was choosing her cubs an appropriately urban menu from the type of food available to her.
2. Laissez-faire parents
Laissez-faire is a French term meaning to let people do as they please. Applied to parenting the term refers to a permissive style in which parents avoid providing guidance and discipline. Hares only visit their young once or twice a day, at dusk, and stay just long enough to let them suckle. Leverets will grow up to lead solitary lives because it is harder for predators to spot individuals than a group, so these harsh lessons in survival begin from birth. They are born able to walk and, despite being just eight centimeters long at birth, their eyes are open so they are at least equipped for this solitary survival. A hare will dig a ‘forme’ or scrape into long grass for the birth and the leverets will stay in this forme until they are three days old and then, if there is more than one in the litter, they tend to disperse into separate hiding places. Read here about one Easter when I watched this secretive style of parenting in the car park of my gallery.
3. ‘Tiger’, or fiercely competitive, parents
Female weasels take on the role of parenting alone, but in their case the approach is a no-nonsense one and they focus on teaching survival skills. These tiny creatures are one of the UK’s smallest mammals and the trick to their success is that they are formidable hunters. I’ve discovered that lessons in tenacity begin very young, when their mothers take them on harsh hunting lessons. I once watched a female weasel take her kits hunting at a rat’s nest. She stood back as one of them attempted to kill a young rat. Read my post about this harsh early life lesson by clicking here.
4. Democratic parents
Birds that bring up their broods together display a healthy equality between the sexes. Among these are kingfishers. These birds are normally solitary but come together in order to bring up their young broods. The male will share the incubation of eggs and brooding of hatchlings by taking it in turns with the female. I’ve been watching a pair as they bring up four chicks from inside the nest. Read my post and see my incredible footage from inside the nest of a pair of kingfishers by clicking here.
5. Sociable extended families
Some species, like long-tailed tits, bring their broods up in large, extended families related family members all help to look after the growing brood. Click here to read my post on how these sociable birds all work together in large, chatty, groups.
Badgers also fit this category. These mammals live together in ancient setts and there is a strict hierarchical order to their clans with a dominant boar that mates with a dominant sow. The sows help one another with cubs and its not uncommon for other female badgers to babysit the cubs whilst the sow goes out to forage. I once watched a sow trying to clean out her sett whilst her cubs kept messing up her housework, the encounter was touchingly familiar to the way human mums get exasperated by their kids whilst trying to complete a task in the home. Read my post on this story here.
6. Over protective parents
Parents that bring up their broods as a pair also work together to protect them from predators. I once watched a pair of curlews take the role of guarding their chicks very seriously – to the point that they would fiercely attack anything that came near them. Read my post about how both male and female saw off a cock pheasant that strayed too close to their nest as well as some 20 rooks, a crow and a kestrel! They were really quite defensive!
7. Pushy parents
Tawny owls are devoted parents and the male and female work together to raise their young, giving meticulous attention to each chick. But in autumn as soon as the owlets become teenagers their parents turn on them and chase them out of their territories. At this time, you can hear the parent birds screeching at their young to shoo them away. The strategy can seem a little cruel, but these young need to be off to establish their own territory and start looking for a mate for the following breeding season. Read my post on this technique by clicking here.
8. Broody Dads
In some animal families it seems to be the males that feel the need to multiply. One extraordinarily male kestrel living in my garden was put to the test last year after he took on a mistress in addition to his long-standing partner and ended up having to care for two broods, a total of 10 chicks! I discovered this kestrel’s double life after spotting him incubating a second female’s eggs via a camera I had hidden in this nest in my garden. Despite the extra effort of having to hunt and feed two separate broods, he tried his best to bring all 10 chicks to the point of fledging. Click here to read my post on this broody dad.
9. Planned parenthood
Some mammal species can actually time their pregnancy through a technique known as delayed implantation. This is so that their offspring are born at the optimum, and safest, time, and also so that the adults themselves are in the best condition physically to bear young. Seals and stoats are among the species that employ this remarkable technique to ensure that their young are born when they have the best chance of survival. For stoats, this means spring, and, in contrast, grey seals pup in winter time. Their fat-rich milk helps them to grow very quickly. Click here to read my post on watching seal pups on the Lincolnshire coast.
10. Infidelity and Divorce
Infidelity does seemingly happen among animal pairs. In the animal world this tends to occur when ‘the going is good’, with perfect conditions of weather and availability of food. I once watched a curlew who’s mate was tempted to stray. Read my post on her distress when she discovered him flirting and the furious way in which she dealt with her competition by clicking here.
11. Nature even has its foster parents
I’ve discovered that owls have a deeply ingrained nurturing instinct. This is so strong that they will even take in another owl’s chicks. In the past I’ve persuaded a pair of tawny owls to take on six chicks that were handed in to me by a rehabilitation unit. Follow this link to my post on how I did this. I’ve also used the same technique to encourage barn owls to raise foundling owlets. Click to read my post on how one barn owl took on extra owlets before her own eggs had even hatched and how she struggled to lift her long talons out of way so that she could brood.
12. Surrogate parents
Reed warblers are hardworking parents, working tirelessly round the clock to feed their chicks. This could be the reason that cuckoos choose reed warblers as surrogate parents for their own chicks. Read more here on how these tiny birds are duped into brooding a cuckoo’s eggs and raising its chick which grows to be more than double the reed warbler’s size.
My exhibition opens at my gallery in Thixendale on June 3rd. My paintings, prints, photographs and video footage will be on display and there will be live links to kestrel, owl and stoat nests. Follow this link to read more about it.
Author: Robert E Fuller