Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey mother or father holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Can they carry their young?
Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care.
An experiment some years ago involving a canary and a homing pigeon proved that a larger bird could and would carry a smaller one. A tiny cockpit was carefully strapped to the pigeon’s back, and the canary was placed inside with its head sticking out. The pigeon took flight and transported its little companion twenty miles.
It’s true that this particular incident was only a publicity stunt. But in the wild, some birds transport their young similarly, while others have devised different methods.
Aquatic birds, such as loons, grebes, and coots, let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming; so do swans and some kinds of ducks and geese. A grebe’s young hatch in a large nest of floating water-weed. As soon as the chicks dry out, they hop onto their parents’ backs and are transported from place to place for a week or more. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being air-borne without even using its own wings.
A cygnet trumpeter swan was once seen flying a few feet above its parent. Every now and then it would land on the adult’s back, rest awhile, then fly again.
Once, some rail chicks were placed in open boxes. When they heard their chicks calling, the parent birds immediately hurried to the boxes, jumped inside, and seized the chicks in their bills. Jumping out of the boxes, they carried their young back to their nests.
Turkey-like chachalacas in Texas, Mexico, and Central America have been seen carrying their babies between their legs from their nests in trees to the ground.
Years ago James Audubon, an American ornithologist, saw chuck-will’s-widow parents—upon seeing their eggs in danger—each take an egg in its mouth and fly away with it. His story was not believed for a long time, but similar behavior has since been noticed among other species of nightjars. And they, too, are reported to carry their young between their legs.
Another water bird, the jacana, which walks on floating vegetation, incubates its eggs by holding them on a shelf-like bone under each wing. Some jacanas even carry their chicks under their wings. Making a churring noise, the mother bird crouches low. The chicks hear the signal and run under her wings. She presses her wings firmly against her sides and stands up. With the chicks’ feet dangling below her wings, she walks away with them, looking like a human mother who has just whisked up her two youngsters under her arms to take them inside from play.