Environment

Following Father’s Day, meet a feathered dad who raises hatchlings all by himself

A male pheasant-tailed jacana incubating a cluth of eggs. Photo: Rama Neelamegam  

Last Sunday being Father’s Day, Facebook feeds shone in the soft glow of paternal affection. Through the day, warm anecdotes about great dads were posted with the periodic occurrence of prime numbers. Being in birding groups, in addition, this writer got to see occasional photos of a lone adult bird leading a clutch of chicks, being posted to mark the day.

The posted parent-bird would be a “father” chosen from a species where the male single-handedly raises the young, a trait indelibly scripted into their DNA.

Where any of these species displays sexual diamorphism, the male is identified straightaway. Where it does not, one just knows it is the male-parent.

A male bronze-winged jacana shelters his young from potential danger, protectively wrapping it under his wing, at the Sholinganallur lake. Photo: Prince Frederick

A male bronze-winged jacana shelters his young from potential danger, protectively wrapping it under his wing, at the Sholinganallur lake. Photo: Prince Frederick  

So, say, a post would have a photo of a male greater painted snipe (rostratula benghalensis) with his young. In this polyandrous species, the male looks distinctly less remarkable than the female. From an ornithological viewpoint, this pattern also signifies a reversal of the regular order.

A photo of a male bronze-winged jacana (metopidius indicus) — or the male of any jacana species — with its brood is another option. Among the jacanas species(which are all polyandrous), let us stick with the bronze-winged jacana, as it is a resident bird of the Indian subcontinent. And with wings of burnished gold, an eye-catching creature to boot. In this species, both sexes look alike, but their measurements vary, with the male being on the smaller side.

A male bronze-winged jacana shelters his young from potential danger, protectively wrapping it under his wing, at the Sholinganallur lake. Photo: Prince Frederick

A male bronze-winged jacana shelters his young from potential danger, protectively wrapping it under his wing, at the Sholinganallur lake. Photo: Prince Frederick  

While describing animal behaviours, a degree of anthropomorphism is unavoidable. It should be kept to the bare minimum. Drawing parallels between human and animal parenting is to particularly engage in the fallacy of false equivalence. A pithy father’s day message couched in feathers for effect is probably only as far as one should allow oneself to go.

Across quite a number of species, parent birds — often, the female of the species — are known to tuck their chicks safely under their wing at the slightest hint of danger. Or, even bear them on their shoulders to safety. The humble phasianidae in our midst: the female of the species (gallus gallus domesticus), called the hen in plain terms is a wonderful herding parent.

However, jacana-fathers are viewed as a kenspeckle figure when it comes to this gathering behaviour, probably because of how often it has been reported. How they look and particularly how they look while pulling it off in their habitat may have something to do with the frequent reportage. Lily pads and a bird walking across them as if it were dry ground and with the elegance of a ballerina make for a scenic package. And when you add two or three pairs of tiny legs jutting out of the feathers — can’t you see the point more clearly?

As a family, birds known as jacanidae have long toes — on second thoughts, disproportionately long toes — that are supremely adapted to mobility across floating vegetation, particularly lilies. Across species, jacanas are hailed as lily-trotters.

In 2018, at the Sholinganallur lake, this writer would observe a bronze-winged jacana-father that would stick by its brood of two — which reduced to one as time wore on — with the mother-parent on the periphery, wading into the picture when it sensed a disturbance.

The floating vegetation found at the waterbody in Sholinganallur was largely water-hyacinth, hardly as eye-catching as a lily. There, this writer has noticed a bronze-winged dad grow bigger by two tiny pairs of legs — which whittled down to just one pair, as predation finally caught up with the family. The fact that water hyacinth was the “floating pad” did not diminish the grandeur of this act.

Jacanas are polyandrous, and the mother bronze-winged jacana in this case found two males’ territories — including the above-mentioned baby-sitting male — subsumed in hers.

Noticeably bigger than the males — as is the case with this species — she would be on the fringes, alert to any ripples of unrest. She clearly had the air of a protector, but it was the male that guided, watched over and from time to time reassured the young, with the protective sweep of his wing.

The male bronze-winged jacana that the female chooses as receiver of the eggs may not be the biological father of the brood he incubates and raises. Reportedly, male bronze-winged jacanas could destroy eggs when their paternity hangs on a question mark, but the mating-system is patterned in such a manner that it happens rarely.


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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 8:05:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/following-fathers-day-meet-a-feathered-dad-who-raises-hatchlings-all-by-himself/article34902226.ece

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