Parenting chores cut into how much these bird dads fool around


The extreme dads of the bird world do all the work raising chicks while females fight intruders. The result: Male black coucals dont sleep around as much when busy parenting.

On occasion, a male black coucal (Centropus grillii) slips over to another males nest to sire a chick. The demands of incubating eggs, however, reduce a males excursions about 17 percent, on average, compared with male birds that didnt have chicks. And during the frantic first week of parenting after eggs hatch, those philandering excursions drop by almost 50 percent, researchers report April 10 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Thats when male coucals, native to sub-Saharan Africa, spend much of their days catching grasshoppers, frogs and other critters to feed chicks too frail to leave their woven grass nests, says behavioral ecologist Wolfgang Goymann at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Even when chicks can leave the nest, theyll need at least two more weeks of dads care.

These coucals are among the few bird species in which females, rather than males, stake out territories and defend them from other females. The females are bigger than the males and warn interlopers with “hoot, hoot” exchanges, which deepen in pitch if antagonists get closer. If hooting fails, one female will fly at the other bird to fight.

“You see just the grass moving, and you hear a grumbling,” Goymann says. Sometimes he spots females “with huge wounds on their heads.”

A females territory has up to five males nesting in it. She builds the basics of a nest and lays eggs with each male in her realm. Unlike other nestlings with dad-only care, these chicks hatch very early in development. They dont even have enough fluff for warmth, and dad needs to snuggle them for about a week before they can leave the nest.

Even when dads are busiest, they dont stop slipping off to nests of other males both inside their mates territory and outside. DNA testing revealed that about half of the male coucals that Goymann studied in southwest Tanzanias wetlands over 12 years were caring for at least one chick sired by some another male, the researchers found.

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