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RSPB giving nature a home

 

 

 

Fathers' Day

May 2018

Blue tit, Parus caeruleus, perched on branch in garden. Co. Durham. October. Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
Blue tit, Parus caeruleus, perched on branch in garden.
Co. Durham. October. Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)

We celebrate Fathers’ Day in the UK on Sunday 17 June, just as many animal dads are facing their busiest time of year.

For example, birds will be frantically flying back and forth to feed their growing families. Did you know that a blue tit chick needs to be fed 100 caterpillars a day to survive? Because these little birds often have around ten young, that’s 1,000 caterpillars for mum and dad to catch every single day!

Some male birds go even further in their efforts to raise the next generation. Another familiar garden visitor is the long-tailed tit, which look like little flying black and white lollipops. Last year’s young, usually the males, stick around to help mum and dad with the current brood of chicks. This takes pressure off the parents as they bring food to the chicks inside their extraordinary mossy barrel-shaped nest.

Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus, collecting insects from Hawthorn bush. John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus, collecting insects from Hawthorn bush. John Bridges (rspb-images.com)


Now’s a great time of year to visit one of Britain’s seabird colonies, one of our greatest wildlife spectacles. Taking in the sight, sound, and – don’t let this put you off – the smell is an incredible experience. Here you should see one of nature’s most devoted dads: the guillemot. This sleek black and white seabird nests on tiny cliff ledges, and rather sensibly given the lack of space, just lays one egg. When it is time for the chick to leave, it needs to make the perilous journey down to the ocean below. The guillemot father will guide the youngster, known as a ‘jumpling’, down from the cliff into the water, and will stay with it until it has learned to catch fish for itself. You can spot guillemots and many other seabirds on coastal RSPB nature reserves such as Bempton Cliffs, Rathlin Island and South Stack.

You’re less likely to see the red-necked phalarope, but it’s worth a trip to the Scottish islands where they nest to find them. These are birds of the Arctic and the UK is right on the edge of their range, the area where they’re naturally found. Phalaropes are in the wader family, a group of birds that usually have long legs and probe into mud, shallow water or soft soil to find their food. Red-necked phalaropes are slightly different, preferring to bob around in water like a duck, spinning around to stir up tasty morsels from underwater. They’re perfectly adapted for this, having ‘lobed’ toes (half-webbed feet!) a bit like a coot, which help them paddle.

Red-necked Phalarope wading in water, breeding plumage. Chris Gomersall(rspb-images.com)
Red-necked Phalarope wading in water, breeding plumage. Chris Gomersall(rspb-images.com)


The most extraordinary thing about these dainty waterbirds, however, is the role reversal of the parents. In most British birds you’ll see a brightly coloured male defending his patch and a more modestly toned female, better camouflaged so that she can incubate eggs on the nest. In red-necked phalaropes, it’s the female who is visually more impressive with her scarlet throat. Once she’s laid a clutch of eggs she leaves, perhaps to find another mate and start a new nest. The male stays behind and incubates the eggs, then looks after the chicks when they hatch. Look for red-necked phalaropes on the RSPB’s Loch na Muilne nature reserve on the Isle of Lewis, and Fetlar reserve in Shetland.

Below the water’s surface there are more incredible fathers. In freshwater, there’s the three-spined stickleback, which you’ll find in many of our ponds, rivers and ditches. The male constructs a nest using aquatic plants then performs a little dance to attract a female. After she’s laid her eggs in the nest he stays with them, defending them from predators and fanning them with his fins to make sure they get enough oxygen. If you’re a regular BBC Springwatch viewer you may remember Spineless Si, the stickleback who gained celebrity status when he was filmed with his nest at RSPB Minsmere.

Three spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus, controlled conditions. Birmingham, Spring, 2016. RSPB (rspb-images.com)
Three spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus, controlled conditions. Birmingham, Spring, 2016. RSPB (rspb-images.com)


Perhaps the most incredible UK animal father is another fish, the short-snouted seahorse. Seahorse dads actually give birth to their young! The female deposits her eggs in a special pouch on the male’s body, where they’ll be fertilised then develop into baby seahorses. His contractions when they emerge can last up to 12 hours!

Short-snouted seahorse. Paul Naylor.
Short-snouted seahorse. Paul Naylor.

How many fantastic bird and animal fathers will you see raising their young this summer? Why not visit an RSPB nature reserve and see some of these hard-working parents for yourself.

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