Bird Dad Awards: The Innovative, the Endearing, and the Less-Than-Admirable

Last month we gave avian moms their due. Now it’s time for the bird dads. Just like with females, these guys employ many different strategies for raising their young. Here we present the “Father Knows Best Awards” for distinctive parenting, just in time for Father’s Day.

Most Innovative Dad: Malleefowl

Photo: Clinton Phillips/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The male of this large ground-dwelling Australian species takes nearly a year to build what’s called a Malleefowl mound, an incubation heap of compostable materials like soil and leaves that can be up to 72 feet wide and 3 feet tall. The female lays her eggs in the mound, where heat from decaying and fermentation incubates them. Dad adds or removes material as necessary to maintain temperature control for his chicks-to-be. As one bird expert put it, “The Malleefowl represents an impressive kind of avian fatherhood.”

Clutch size: 18
For more information:
Malleefowl Preservation Group
Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Best Provider: Red-tailed Hawk

Photo: Jeremy Seto/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The male of this common North American bird of prey brings home the bacon, so to speak. What he’s actually bringing are rodents and other small mammals, plus some birds and reptiles, to the mother of his chicks and eventually, his young. He helps incubate the eggs, too. Once the chicks arrive, the male still fetches dinner and the female preps it by tearing it up for their offspring.

Clutch size: 2-3
For more information:
All About Birds

Best Single Dad: Red Phalarope

Photo: Mike Baird/CC BY 2.0

After the female lays her eggs, she scrams and the male of this pelagic species takes over, incubating the eggs for three weeks and then raising his chicks alone. Granted, dad doesn’t have to feed the babies—from day one, they can walk, run, swim, and find their own meals—but he sticks around for two weeks after they hatch, calling to his young with a Whe-eep, then landing nearby when they respond.

Clutch size:
For more information:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Neotropical Birds
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Best Parenting Partner: Emperor Penguin

Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantink/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After mom lays a single egg, she immediately transfers it to papa’s feet, where it stays warm under a brood pouch of skin and feathers. The female heads off to sea for weeks, leaving dad to fend for himself against the frigid Antarctic winter. (Finding themselves in similar circumstances—alone in the cold—many Emperor penguin males huddle together for warmth.) Once mom returns, refreshed and well fed, dad takes off for his weeks-long feast. Eventually, mom and dad take turns feeding their young, in what might be described as avian co-parenting.

Clutch size: 1
For more information:
IUCN Redlist
National Geographic

Deadbeat Dad: Allen’s Hummingbird

Photo: Len Blumin/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sure, the male’s flashiness may help him score a female initially, but he does nothing to help prepare for the chicks—the female builds the nest—much less tend to them. In fact, pair bonding is relatively non-existent for this species. Mom incubates the eggs alone. She turns them by herself. And once they’re born, she broods day and night for at least 10 days. By that point, dad’s long gone.

Clutch size: 2
For more information:
National Audubon Society
All About Birds