Dads play varied roles in the animal kingdom

June 8, 2014 

Animal moms are often well-equipped to raise their young alone, requiring no involvement from their mates. As a result, many animals have no contact with their fathers.

But some animal fathers of the Pacific Northwest turn the stereotype on its head — and they deserve a special mention in honor of Father’s Day.

RED FOXES

Some animal dads help mom do what she does best: focus on the kids (or kits). Female red foxes, also called vixens, give birth to about five kits at a time. The kits are born blind, deaf, toothless and unable to regulate their body temperature, so it’s essential they stay close to mom for at least two weeks. During this time, the father provides food to the vixen, and in the case she dies before her kits are independent, he may take over the care of the offspring.

GREAT BLUE HERONS

Another dad who really sticks his neck out to help is the great blue heron. Great blue herons are serially monogamous, meaning that pairs are formed each breeding season but this bond usually doesn’t last more than a year.

Males first help their mates by collecting nest-building materials. Starting as early as March, females lay three to six pale blue eggs that must be incubated for almost a month. The father helps incubate the eggs for nearly 11 hours a day. After the chicks are hatched, the father helps feed them by regurgitating fish and other prey.

The chicks take their first flight after about two months but return to the nest for another few weeks, observing their parents’ foraging behavior. Dad sets an example, teaching them how to survive.

At the end of a breeding season, the parents disband and live independently until the next breeding season, when they choose new mates.

Northern flickers and American coots are other examples of birds that share incubation duties. A mother Canada goose incubates her own eggs, but dad stays close by to protect her and guard the nest.

NORTH AMERICAN BEAVERS

Some animal fathers take an even more active role in family life, staying involved for several years after offspring are born. In the case of the North American beaver, dad is just one part of the family unit that works together to build a home.

Beavers are known for their construction abilities, engineering complex lodges, dams and canals. They inhabit their lodges in family groups — mom and dad are monogamous, living together with their youngest offspring and a few yearlings. Every spring, two to six newborn kits typically join the family and 2-year-olds leave to form their own families. If a family is large enough, they may even occupy two dens.

Plenty of chores are involved to keep the family safe and well-fed on a diet full of leaves, bark, stems, and roots. Everyone helps maintain the homestead. Both parents feed and protect the young, while older siblings assist by storing food, repairing the dam, and feeding and grooming their younger siblings.

BALD EAGLES

Another homemaking animal father is the bald eagle. Bald eagle pairs, usually together for life, build up their massive nests — called aeries — every breeding year. Aeries are a grand affair: built 50 to 125 feet above the ground, they can reach 6 feet in diameter and may weigh up to two tons. Females typically lay two eggs a few days apart. Both parents hunt and offer food to their eaglets for about 12 weeks, until the young are able to fledge. Dad sticks around for several months after that, helping mom teach the offspring how to hunt and fly.

TRUMPETER SWANS

Trumpeter swans take loyalty and nest-building to a new level. These graceful birds usually mate for life — sometimes, if his mate dies, a trumpeter swan father will never mate again.

A trumpeter swan pair works together to build a nest that can be used for several years. For this team effort, the male brings clumps of uprooted plants to the female, who adds them to the nest. Nests are usually built in marsh water up to 3 feet deep and surrounded by vegetation. The female is the primary defender during the pre-nesting season, but when she’s busy incubating her eggs, her mate takes over watchkeeping duty. He may also help with incubation.

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