Here's to Mothers, Human and Animal

May 13, 2019

The Masked Biologist dedicates today’s Wildlife Matters to all the mothers out there, human and animal.

Mother’s Day has come and gone. The one day a year when children turn their attention, however brief, to everything their mother has done and continues to do for them. I have kids, three kids, and it is a chore to get them to recognize their mother as much more than a housekeeper, cook, taxi driver, banker and occasionally entertainment director. I am sure I probably did the same when I was younger, one of six children my mom had to try to convert from diaper-filling babies to fully functioning responsible adults. She succeeded, in my estimation, despite significant odds against her (four boys and two girls).

In the animal world, mothers come in all shapes and sizes, and their rearing skills vary greatly. Momma bears are always held up as examples of dangerously protective mothers. Bears really deserve a lot of credit; females birth and tend two to five cubs, nurse them in the winter den, then raise and train them for over a year. They are born in February, and mother finally kicks them out May or June of the following year. Then they can breed and start the cycle over again. While they are caring for their cubs, they train them to run up a nearby tree for safety, the closest they can come to using daycare. Cubs may not have a lot of natural predators, but they are in danger from boars, or adult male bears, which will kill them if they see them.

Ground nesting birds like Ruffed grouse wouldn’t necessarily earn mother of the year. True, hens will faithfully sit on eggs to hatch them, and they will lead their young to find food, water and shelter. And, if a hen senses her chicks are in danger, she will put on a dramatic show involving what seems to be a broken wing so that you are inclined to follow her while her offspring spread out and disappear into the underbrush. But as the summer goes on, the young are left on their own, and they are independent by fall.

Contrast that with tree or cavity nesting birds, and you can see a little more dedication. These birds will not only incubate the eggs, but they will then feed the young when they hatch, remove the egg shells from the nest, and even remove their “dirty diapers” or fecal sacs to keep the nest nice and clean. They drive off predators and, when their young are feathered or covered with fluff, they will lure the babies out of the nest and lead them to safety. Wood duck hens have more work to do once their young hit the ground. They have to lead them to water, teach them to take care of themselves and avoid predators. Migratory birds might have it a bit easier; their young feather out and as soon as they can hunt for themselves, they are more or less on their own. Well, maybe not completely. These birds have to start building up their flight muscles in mid to late summer and prepare to migrate. Some of our bird species that are building and sitting on nests right now will be 2,200 miles south of here, in southern central America or northern south America by early fall.

Deer give birth to their young right about now, and tend them for a year. They will nurse them for weeks until they can start feeding, all the while trying to keep them scent free, teach them how to hide to stay safe, and where to find food. They will breed each fall, so they are helping their fawns survive their first winter while they are also pregnant with another fawn.

Throughout the animal kingdom, there are examples of parents that take extreme measures to raise and protect their young, and parents that barely play a role in their young’s life at all. At the end of the day, the animals with the best mothers are rewarded with survival, and the female offspring will take what they learn from their mothers and apply it in their own adult lives. Much like human mothers, success in life is seeing your kids succeed at life thanks to everything they learned from you.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

The photo above belongs to Max Pixel and can be found online here: