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Nesting

Parental behavior in nature ranges from the lay it and leave it strategy of most insects and reptiles to animals, like the elephant, that care for their young for many years.

Parents provide us with food, shelter, love, and education. Parenting in the animal kingdom depends somewhat on parentage or the percentage of a species’ social group that are offspring from caregivers. Some animal parents care for their offspring for years like humans, while others simply release their gametes and hope for the best.

When the parent lays eggs, as opposed to living birth, there is the option of caring for and guarding the eggs or leaving them to their fate.

Unlike mammals that give birth to live offspring, birds lay eggs with their embryo coated in a hard, protective shell. The eggs must be kept warm and protected while the baby develops. Like mammals, some birds are quite invested in their young.

The emperor penguin is known for its parental devotion to its offspring. The male penguin cradles the new egg in his feet for months on end, protecting it from the elements. The male penguin starves itself in sub-zero temperatures to protect the egg. After two months, the egg hatches, and the female returns to feed the chick, keeping it warm and protecting it from the elements until it is old enough to swim and fish on its own.

In animals that choose to watch over the eggs, there is some variation in who cares for them. Part of the decision to watch over eggs and young can be attributed to the likelihood of being the biological parent.

Some species mate many times and, if the female carries the eggs, then they may have one mother and many potential fathers. She is definitely the mother of the young and it serves her best interests to see them hatch and mature.

For the male, there is less certainty that he is the father of the young. Thus many males opt to fertilize and then leave to fertilize yet another female’s eggs in the hopes that at least some of the offspring in each clutch is his.

In many species of birds and mammals, young adults old enough to be “ready” to move out are sometimes allowed — even encouraged — to stay in the home territory and help out. Occasionally these aunts and uncles stay home for life. The arrangement is a win-win-win for parents, offspring, and new younger siblings. The young adults care for siblings by bringing food and acting as babysitters and mentors; they help the group by adding vigilance and security and extra numbers for mobs. Rarely are they freeloaders.

Staying in the home nest for extra time before dispersing is also not a sign of failure to launch. The benefits for these lingering young adults are many. If the environment has too many predators, young adults may be physically safer staying on longer with their parents. If it’s a year with a lot of peer competition, waiting a season can boost a young bird’s chances of finding food, territory, and mates. Another boon is that they’re on-site in the event a parent dies and succession is up for grabs. They might inherit territory.

Humans are notable for a long time. We spend independent childhood and adolescence compared with other species, but we may not be such outliers after all. Many wild animal parents do not cut off support the minute their offspring leaves. In fact, many dials up the help and the training. If a youngster is having trouble getting enough to eat, animal parents will often feed them. If a youngster isn’t meeting peers, parents may provide introductions. Some bequeath territory and offer access to food larders they’ve been stocking away.

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