Friday, April 5, 2013

deadbeat dads

Interesting ceramic figurine, but bad natural history.
Only the male ruby-throated hummingbirds
have ruby throats,
but no male ever, ever, ever cares for the young.
The females do all the work

With April finally here—and maybe even spring—the migrating pixies, ruby-throated hummingbirds, will soon return to our yards. Some will stay and nest, but most will move on to breeding grounds farther north.

The three-gram, little dynamos are remarkable, amazing, miraculous ... whatever descriptor you want to use, pile them on like whipped cream on pumpkin pie. Most folks love the iridescent ruby red throat feathers. But only the males are so flashy, the white-throated females get much less attention.

This is an injustice because the females do all the work. 

Forgive me for what I am about to report.

You can read every book available on these feathered jewels and there is one word you simply will not find on any of the pages. Fatherhood.

Ruled by their own self-interest, the blustering ruby-throated males are bad fathers. When it comes to being there, when the young hummers truly need them, they are "in absentia."

The females alone build the complicated nests—chiefly out of spider silk, plant fibers and lichen. The females also lay the eggs (generally always two), do all the incubation, feeding, and after the young fledge, it's the moms that care for the young hummers and teach them how to survive the perils of life. The fathers are, once again, in absentia.

Often the females go through this difficult family-rearing process twice a season, raising two broods alone because, you guessed it, the fathers are A.W.O.L.

Without the hard work of Mom, the family, population, species would go extinct. Dad's contribution to the survival of the species is so small—a single cell—it takes a microscope to see it.

And just what are the bellicose fathers doing all this time? 

Self-absorbed, their gorgets flaring, they defend a perceived rich source of nectar, chasing away all other males and females. Occasionally, they leave their home turf attempting to mate with as many females as possible, but are generally shunned by most they approach. Old fools. The females are too busy being mothers.

However, nature has a sense of justice. In humans, narcissism comes at a cost. You die alone. 

Reveling in his overinflated, self-importance, ultimately the haggard red-throated male finds himself all by himself, bedraggled. The older, alpha male falls from power. According to hummingbird expert Bob Sargent, "By the end of the breeding season, the males are ragged and undernourished. It is no accident that, on average, females tend to live one or two years longer than males."

Paterfamilias? Not here. Not the ruby-throats. They ducked out the backdoor like most other deadbeat dads.

Fatherhood is a responsibility, not a convenience.

For more galling stories of poor paternity skills, look for my upcoming new book titled Bad Dads: Deadbeat Daddies in the Animal Kingdom

Shame on you guys. The world doesn't revolve around you! 

Cover photo by Kabir Bakie.    

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