Why do Common Loon chicks ride on their parents’ backs for the first two weeks of their life? There are several reasons. Loon chicks leave their nest as soon as their downy feathers are dry; if they stayed in their ground nest, they would be very vulnerable to predators on land. For the same reason, they rarely return to their nest.
Like many young birds, loon chicks can’t immediately regulate their body heat. Many birds brood their young in the nest, providing them with warmth and shelter. Common Loon parents brood their young on their back (and under their wings). On windy, cloudy, cool days, the chicks are nowhere to be seen, huddled under their parents’ wings. On calm, sunny days, they are in full view.
Although they can swim immediately after hatching, loon chicks are very buoyant and have difficulty maneuvering. Predators such as Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and gulls are quick to prey on young loons that have no parental protection. In addition, predatory fish such as Northern Pike and Largemouth Bass are a threat. Once they are several weeks old, the chicks are not only bigger, but they are more mobile and can avoid predators more easily.
When their offspring are very young, Hairy Woodpeckers feed them by regurgitation. As the nestlings mature, the parents bring food back to the nest. Most species of birds (85%) engage in bi-parental care, where the male and female contribute equally to feeding and guarding their young. Often the male does more of the food gathering and the female more of the brooding.
In some of these species the male and female both brood as well as gather food. Hairy Woodpecker parents share these duties equally for the month that their young remain in their cavity nest. They both brood their young, with males typically getting night duty, and both gather food for their nestlings. Lawrence Kilham, a New Hampshire MD and ornithologist, found that male Hairy Woodpeckers foraged farther from the nest, made fewer feeding visits, and brought larger prey to nestlings, whereas females remained closer and fed young three to four times as frequently as males. (Photo: female Hairy Woodpecker arriving with arachnid food, male about to depart. Thanks to Suzanne Weinberg for photo op.)
Barred Owl eggs (usually two or three) are often laid in a tree cavity, where the adult female incubates them for roughly a month. Fuzzy, white, downy chicks hatch and remain inside the tree for four or five weeks while being fed by both parents. When the young owls are two or three weeks old, their white down is replaced with gray-buff secondary down, and they gain the strength to climb up the inside of the tree and peer out at the outside world. In and out they go, perching on the rim of the nest hole for half an hour or so as they await the arrival of their next meal, and then retreating back to the safety and warmth of their nest. (Thanks to Alfred Balch, naturalist extraordinaire, for photo op.)
While loon chicks can swim as soon as their down dries, they are not able to regulate their body heat for their first two weeks of life and are dependent upon their parents for warmth. (A lot of the chick’s heat is lost through its feet when it is in the water.) Whereas most birds provide this warmth (in a process called brooding) in the nest, Common Loons brood their young on the water during this period. The chicks simply climb up the backs or sides of a parent while the parent raises its wing. Once the chicks are situated on the back of the loon, the adult lowers its wing, sheltering the vulnerable chicks from the elements. If the sun is out, the wind is slight and the temperature is warm, the chicks will come out from underneath the wing(s) and ride around enjoying the view. If the wind picks up or the temperature drops, the chicks will crawl back under their parent’s wings, totally hidden from view.