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PONDER Blog

Nature, Nurture & all Odds

Chelsea Behymer

 In an Australasian gannet colony, there are few gender roles. Cape Kidnappers, NZ.

In an Australasian gannet colony, there are few gender roles. Cape Kidnappers, NZ.

As a metaphorical tribute to National women’s day and a reflection of my recent experiences with the summer breeding season of several seabird species in New Zealand, I wanted to publish an image of a female seabird doing something amazing. But as I sifted through my collection of photos, I realized that seabirds are much more progressive than we are.

Unlike most of the bird world, male seabirds don't look any more special than their partners. Instead they put their energy into showing the females they have what it takes to share the responsibilities of raising their offspring equally. Terns showcase their fishing skills. Gannets demonstrate their nest building capabilities by presenting their partner with seaweed. Albatross dance like no one is watching. The point here is, it seems well understood that looks are the least important in this relationship. Humans should take note…

The hard work of building a nest, incubation, and feeding requires teamwork. In a recent NY Times article about Blue-footed booby research, scientists have found that the key to these successful life-long partnerships is by mastering “the art of symmetry and turn-taking. [Male and female] spend the same time brooding and feeding the young, and expend the same physical effort as seen in measures of blood cells and body mass.” But such egalitarian parenting isn’t the full story.

 Not blue like the feet of their relatives, these gannets are still equipped to incubate. Murawai, NZ.

Not blue like the feet of their relatives, these gannets are still equipped to incubate. Murawai, NZ.

 Warm under mum or dad's wing. Dunedin, NZ.

Warm under mum or dad's wing. Dunedin, NZ.

 Guard duty. Taiaroa Head, NZ. 

Guard duty. Taiaroa Head, NZ. 

All that work can't prepare for the chicks for circumstances that are beyond parental control. The chicks have to take flight, make mistakes, and face a whole host of obstacles independently. While in the human world we often attribute childhood success with good parenting, the same research that assessed the relationships of blue-footed booby pairs also tracked chicks into their adult lives. Interestingly enough, it’s chicks who experience a challenging upbringing that become the most successful as adults.

For example, among competitive siblings, “no matter how relentlessly the birds had been pecked at and bitten by older siblings, no matter how often food had been snatched from their beaks or how slowly they had grown, on reaching maturity the once-persecuted birds proved surprisingly confident, capable — unflappable. They were able to attract partners, repel rivals and raise families as successfully as their domineering peers.”

 An Australasian gannet downy chick awaits a feed.  Murawai, NZ. 

An Australasian gannet downy chick awaits a feed.  Murawai, NZ. 

It's been amazing for me over the past few months to witness the lifecycle of a variety of seabird species, and to appreciate that ultimately whether the chick makes it back to raise offspring of its own isn't a matter of chance, circumstance, or care alone. In reality, all of those things meet with genetics, opportunity, risk, trial, and determination. While visiting an Australasian gannet colony in New Zealand, one chick in particular stood out from the crowded scene. The top portion of its beak was deformed, likely damaged shortly after hatching when it was still soft. No matter how well the chick is looked after by its parents, it is very unlikely it will be able to forage for itself. But unaware of its disadvantage (or perhaps in direct defiance), its parents will continue to feed it and the chick will still try, driven by the inherent urge to step off the ledge into the unknown.

 When parental care is challenged by chance and circumstance. Cape Kidnappers, NZ. 

When parental care is challenged by chance and circumstance. Cape Kidnappers, NZ. 

 An Australasian gannet spreads its wings for the first time. Cape Kidnappers, NZ. 

An Australasian gannet spreads its wings for the first time. Cape Kidnappers, NZ. 

Where we as humans find ourselves presently isn’t all that different. We can attribute both our successes and failures to a number of things, while recognizing that this life is a mixed bag.  And with whatever we are, have, or encounter as individuals, we can choose to never stop trying to create the most opportunities possible with them every day.

I continue to marvel at the complexity of life, especially things that can't be explained logically, scientifically, or even spiritually. The fact that seabirds can and do return from great distances to the same place they left years prior, like so many facets of life is simply amazing. And absolutely a testament to the strength of males and females of all species!

 Independent, but not alone. Cape Kidnappers, NZ. 

Independent, but not alone. Cape Kidnappers, NZ.