Welcome to the Jeremy Kyle special post of Nature is a Language. A look at the unusual breeding activities of birds that if they occurred in humans, they would most probably be seen on The Jeremy Kyle show.
First up, the one we all know and love nature’s rogue. The Cuckoo! Many people consider hearing this brood parasite’s call as the start of spring (However the birds decline means that I’ve not seen the start of spring for unfortunately a few years). But yes the Cuckoo is nature’s equivalent to a single mother who goes around having children and leaving them to the state to look after, except they don’t make devilishly wonderful clock accessories. The Common Cuckoo is well-known for selecting a nest of another species ejecting an egg and laying one of its own in its place. Why does the cuckoo do this? One advantage of brood parasitism is that it vastly saves energy. The female is spared that hard labour of nest-building, incubation and feeding, meaning that it can spend more time on laying more eggs. Another advantage is that there is a greater chance of its eggs surviving. By literally not putting all of its eggs in one basket the cuckoo ensuring that the species and genes are passed on. A cuckoo lay on average 9 to 11 eggs, which means that if something happens even several of the nests there are still plenty more out there. Although unfortunately even if this is the case the cuckoo is still in decline, this has been linked to the decline in hosts such as Meadow Pipits and Dunnocks.
Next up we have the devoted single dads, the one who have been left with all the childcare whilst the mother goes about her own business. First up in this category is the rhea. The rhea is a flightless bird that looks like an ostrich. The male rhea mates with a harem of female rheas, lucky you might think however here is where the rhea draws the short straw. The male rhea builds his own nest after mating and the female comes along and lays an egg in his nest. Then the male will go out and mate again and again the female will return to his nest several days later to lay an egg. This can happen until he has a batch of around sixty. The eggs are laid days apart however they will all hatch within thirty-six hours of each other. So whilst the male sits on the eggs and then looks after the chicks the female is free to gallivant around looking for another male to mate with.
The red-necked phalarope is also another female that leaves the male to do the brooding. However in phalaropes there is reversed sexual dimorphism. In most bird species the male is the bigger more colourful bird, the one who does all the chasing. However with red-necked phalaropes the female is the bigger more colourful one, who chases after males to mate with and will fight other females for a male. However once the mating is over and done with the female leaves the male to sit on the nest and in turn look after the hatchlings whilst she begins her migration. Yes, whilst the male is playing doting dad, she’s off to warmer climates. The animal kingdom equivalent to leaving the kids with the dad and hoping on an easy jet flight to Benidorm!
Now there’s always that problem on Kyle of not knowing who the father is. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the dunnock! The passerine formally known as the hedge sparrow; the dunnock is a really interesting case when it comings to breeding and feeding of chicks. The female dunnock is pretty much a floozy. Dunnocks can be monogamous however if there is opportunity the female can also be polyandrous. In some cases several males sharing one female. This comes down to if a female’s feeding range overlaps with one or more male dunnock’s territory. In addition to this male dunnocks can also share the same territory. The smaller less dominant male would normally not get a chance to mate in other passerines. However in the case of dunnocks whilst the larger dunnock may get to partner with the female, if another dunnock catches her eye whilst the dominant male is out of sight she will go and mate willingly with the smaller male, even flying off from the dominant male in search of other males. Talk about being easy! Before mating the male dunnock will peck at the female’s cloaca resulting in the release of sperm from earlier matings. The male will then mate with her, ensuring that he is pretty much the likely father of the brood. Like Ray Winstone in Scum, sticking out his chest proclaiming that he’s the daddy now. Why does the female dunnock do this? Well it does because the more males she mates with the more males think they’re the father of the brood so will then help to rear the chicks. Now there is a real need for the use of a paternity test!
Last up is everyone’s favourite – The Love Rat! The Fairy-Wren found in Australia is a true love rat. They appear to be monogamous and form pairs however both mate with other birds. Whilst the female is busy the male will take off and find another female to mate with. After the eggs hatch the male will even help out raising the chicks of his bit on the side. In true love rat form the male plucks petals of brightly coloured plants and takes them to the females. Cute you may think, but if the fairy-wren was human he’d be on Jeremy Kyle with a bunch of roses from a petrol station forecourt!