Fantastic Friday: Creches

Today this French-based term isn’t about a tableau for the birth of Jesus, or a British daycare or nursery. This is about animal behavior and the communal care and raising of young. This is a behavior that is exhibited by some bird species, particularly aquatic-based birds such as ducks, geese, eiders, penguins, and cormorants.

Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick
Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick

So, how does this even happen? Well, in some cases it’s just parents feeding the wrong kid, like in the case of cliff swallows who are colonial nesters. In other cases, there could be a territory dispute between females with young in tow, and a mix-up of children happens, and they end up with a different mother than they arrived with. However, sometimes it’s just moms teaming up and taking the “it takes a village” approach to parenting. Sometimes even non-breeding females will assist with the care of the young. I observed an example of a creche in D.C. when I was in town for the National Geographic BioBlitz, when a female Mallard had three ducklings in tow, and one of them was decidedly younger than the other two (not pictured). A National Park Service ranger informed me that it’s very common in the Constitutional Gardens to see that sort of thing, and that it was probably poor parenting on the other hen’s part that led to the hen I saw with the mixed-ages young.

So, this is mostly a bird behavior, but there are mammals, such as humans (ever drop know a kid dropped off to a daycare center?) and lions, that exhibit this behavior. It’s pretty cool to see instances of what could be considered adoption and/or daycare in species outside of Homo sapiens.

A little more information and examples:

Brandt’s Cormorants


African Lions 1

African Lions 2 

A Banner Month For Elephants?

Two breaking news items on the elephant conservation front over the last few days. First, Ringling announces the retirement of their elephants more than a year earlier than originally planned. Now, only 19 days into 2016, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced plans to “phase out” ivory sales in the city. In a city where 400 sellers are allowed to trade ivory material and products despite the ban of importing and exporting ivory in Hong Kong, this comes as a welcome reprieve for elephants everywhere. However, this is a city where this black market item seems to flourish in sales, it could be difficult to get trade to stop all together.

While banning ivory may not seem like a complicated issue, it has a long history of being in demand around the world and it has not been easy to get the trade to diminish. Ivory is used in souvenirs, art, instruments, clothing, and traditional medicine in some cultures. Ivory is the teeth of elephant and mammoths but the term has also been applied to other large mammals whose teeth are of commercial trade interest (US Fish & Wildlife). In 2015, the US Government hosted an Ivory Crush in New York’s Times Square to demonstrate to ivory traffickers world-wide that the trade of ivory will not be tolerated by the United States. More than 100,000 elephants in three years were killed for their ivory and these numbers are not sustainable for the continuation of the species. To put that into further prospective, roughly 1 in 12 African Elephants were killed for their ivory in 2011 (National Geographic). Elephants have a gestation period of almost 2 years, spend the first 3-5 years with their mother, and then between the ages of 8-13 years elephants sexually mature. Adulthood for elephants, like humans, starts around the age of 18 and they have a lifespan of up to 70 years in the wild. Elephants are typically found in herds dominated by females; and adult males tend to be loners and only find females during the mating seasons. According to the IUCN, current African Elephant populations are increasing but only at a rate of 4% per year.

All elephant populations face the same conservation issues, but the Asian Elephants are listed as endangered whereas the African Elephants are currently listed as vulnerable. Elephants need more time than say a mouse species (which can have 5-10 litters of 4-6 young per year in some cases) to bounce back from poaching and hunting. The efforts of governments world-wide to ban the illegal trade of ivory is admirable, but governments need to continue enforce their laws and regulations in order to help save these species from disappearing from Earth’s landscapes. So, is it a banner month for elephants? Perhaps, but more work needs to be done – just like with many other species and landscapes facing extinction.


Elephant Life Cycle

US Fish & Wildlife Ivory Ban Questions & Answers

History of the Ivory Trade (NatGeo)

Stop the Ivory Trade