Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Decorah: Why is Mom Being So Mean to Dad?

We’ve had several questions and comments about Mom’s behavior lately. Why is Mom mad at Dad? Why is Mom so demanding? Why is Mom so mean? While I can find snippets of behavior that would seem loving to human observers – shared incubation duty, mutual nest control, and Dad feeding Mom, to name a few – both adults are going through hormonal changes and their behavior reflects that.

Daylight length, or photoperiod, strongly influences hormone production in birds. In the northern hemisphere, our story begins shortly after the winter solstice in December. As daylight length increases, a cascade of hormones causes birds’ gonads to swell, increasing the production of testosterone in males and progesterone (plus a small amount of testosterone) in females. Testosterone is associated with aggression, territoriality, courtship, nest-building and, in males, testicular development and spermatogenesis, while progesterone, the “pregnancy hormone”, induces egg production in females.

Mom and Dad share incubation duties, so both of them experience another hormonal change once incubation begins. Production of prolactin, a hormone that induces incubation and stimulates brood patch development, rises sharply, while testosterone and progesterone production rapidly decrease. Opioid peptides help stimulate prolactin production, which may be another reason that normally active birds suddenly want to spend the entire day sitting on eggs.

So in the first part of their reproductive cycle, Mom and Dad’s interactions with one another and their young are mediated by hormones that stimulate courtship, mating, territoriality, egg-laying, and lethargy. We humans are moved by their relationship with one another and their tender devotion to their offspring. It’s hard not to see hearts everywhere – I know I did! – as Mom pursues Dad around the nest, Dad brings food gifts to Mom, and both eagles work together to keep their eggs safe from all the extremes Iowa’s winter and early spring can bring.

And then they start shaking the prolactin off.

If the eagles’ earlier behavior added up to love, it’s hard not to see this as its opposite. Mom suddenly seems mean, snappy, or demanding to some watchers. Dad still loves his offspring but seems more distant. In this narrative, our eagle couple is drifting apart – or maybe Mom’s behavior will cause Dad to reject her for a less snappy, more appreciative mate. While compelling to human watchers, this scenario isn’t true.

So what is happening to our eagles? It isn't eagle divorce, but it isn't entirely our imagination, either. As their gonads begin shrinking, they decrease courtship and pair bonding behaviors. As prolactin ebbs, their metabolisms speed up, they become more physically active, their body fat drops slightly, and they probably become hungrier. Mom’s whistling ‘tea-kettle’ makes its first appearance as vocalizations change, although it still stimulates food delivery and/or an appearance by Dad. What we interpret as a falling out is simply a pair of mature, active bald eagles beginning to resume the non-reproductive phase of their lives. To paraphrase Scott Weidensaul, sex hormones pull many strings in a bird’s body. We are seeing that in Decorah right now.

Things that helped me write this post:

Did you know? 

In humans, females are xx (homogametic) and males are xy (heterogametic). But in birds, females are zw (heterogametic) and males are zz (homogametic). Unlike humans, female birds determine the gender of their offspring.