Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Parental Care

As you explore around Cape May this time of year, it is impossible not to notice the energy that accompanies bringing forth the next generation of birds. From the Purple Martins at the State Park catching insect after insect to fill the many hungry mouths of their chicks, to the Mallards working to keep their brood of ducklings safely together at the South Cape May Meadows. New life is all around us! Parents tirelessly defend territories from potential predators and rival birds to ensure they have the resources to raise their young to fledglings. We hear their gorgeous singing and get to witness their skill and expertise as they build nests. We watch as they sit on eggs and cover young chicks to shield them from predators and the wrath of Mother Nature. In a matter of weeks, we will see parents teaching their little ones how to navigate their habitat and forage for food. We will hear the alarm calls when a predator is near and look around, searching for the danger ourselves. We are saddened by their losses and champion their success, and throughout it all, we watch in awe at their abilities to raise young in such a harsh world.

Prothonotary Warbler setting up a breeding territory at The Beanery. [Photo by Sam Galick].

In many ways, most birds act as a model of exceptional parental care. The same cannot be said for our other abundantly obvious wildlife this time of year: frogs. The frogs found around Cape May take a much more laissez faire attitude when it comes to taking care of their young (though to be fair, this is hardly the case for all frogs). Males relentless call for mates, and I stress mates for polygyny runs rampant in frog society. The male awkwardly grapples onto the female and the pair will lay and fertilize hundreds of eggs, only to then part ways, never to be seen again by each other or their young. Tadpoles hatch out and find themselves in a harsh, tadpole-eat-tadpole world with no protection from the seemingly endless predators and no watchful parents. All this is leading up to a major metamorphosis where they must survive an entire overhaul to their anatomy and physiology. Maybe this is the bigger picture Kermit was referring to when he claimed, “It’s not easy being green.”

Fowler’s Toads in amplexus. [Photo by Bob Ferguson].

Though the frogs’ style of parenting (or lack there of) may seem harsh, they have a point. As any parent could tell you, raising young is exhausting and taxing, not only on your body but also on your mental state. In fact, there have been multiple ornithological studies that show the number of young raised one year directly affects a bird’s ability to lay eggs and raise young in subsequent years. As parents, birds give a piece of themselves to their young, not just genetically, but through their efforts and dedication. So as you explore your local park, backyard, or even our habitats here in Cape May, take a moment to find animal breeding activity. For whether it’s a highly publicized Bald Eagle nest cam or the American Robin nest in your backyard, we all love to be a witness to the magic of spring and the new life it brings.--Margeaux Maerz, George Myers Naturalist

Osprey carrying nesting material in Jarvis Sound. [Photo by Sam Galick].

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