Parental Care: How Birds Raise Their Young

An overview of parental care in birds. Cooperation and conflict in how birds protect and feed their chicks.

June 22, 2023

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Parental Care: How Birds Raise Their Young


This episode is an overview of parental care in birds. How do birds raise their babies?

Parent birds feeding their chicks in a nest is an iconic image. It’s a symbol of the spring and summer seasons and of the annual rejuvenation of nature.

To the casual observer, birds generally come across as caring, attentive parents. Similar to the way mammals demonstrate good parenting behavior. We humans approve of this sort of thing. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

I mean, the behavior of birds and mammals is way better than what amphibians and reptiles do, right? Those cold-blooded critters just crank out a bunch of babies and then leave them to fend for themselves. No parental care to speak of. Despicable!

But to be fair, birds aren’t always the paragons of parental love that we might think they are. They sometimes do pretty messed up things when it comes to raising their offspring.

And this highlights the fact that humans like to project our own cultural values onto animals.

If, for example, we see a pair of adult geese dutifully tending to their adorable, fuzzy chicks, we might think, “Aww… What a cute little family. They all love each other.”

And when we hear about a female Blue-footed Booby that did nothing and just sat there indifferently while the older of her two chicks murdered its younger sibling… Well, in that case, we’d probably think that booby is a bad mommy. She should be locked up in bird prison, if there were such a thing.

I’ll admit I’m often guilty of this sort of thinking. I like to think that birds love their babies. I’m a total sucker for heartwarming scenes of parental care in birds.

But I also know it’s not really fair for us to judge birds based on human ideas of right and wrong. Birds are just being birds. They do whatever it takes to survive and reproduce in a challenging and mostly unpredictable world.

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Black-naped Monarch Flycatcher (Hypothymis azurea) family with altricial chicks. Photo by Prin79/Adobe.
A precocial Piping Plover chick (Charadrius melodus). Photo by Harry Collins/Adobe.
Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata). Photo by Subash BGK/Adobe.
Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea). Photo by Danita Delimont/Adobe.
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) making an injury-feigning display. Photo by photobyjimshane/Adobe.
Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) male.


  • Pygmy Nuthatch sounds (Xeno Canto recording XC343422)
  • Scaly-breasted Munia sounds (Xeno Canto recording XC585396)
  • Killdeer sounds (Xeno Canto recording XC62728)

This work by Ivan Phillipsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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