Wildlife go to extremes to be good parents

A killdeer feigns injury. The shore bird will pretend it cannot fly and screech to try to protect its young.
A killdeer feigns injury. The shore bird will pretend it cannot fly and screech to try to protect its young.

It is well documented that the worst place for a hunter or a hiker to find themselves is stepping between a mother bear and her cubs. Stumble into that situation and you will likely see that seemingly docile sow instantly transform into an aggressive mass of rage, armed with sharp claws and incredible strength.

Just last week, a Wyoming rancher who was working on irrigation equipment in a remote area inadvertently got too close to a sow with two cubs, and he’s now in the hospital recovering from a mauling. Wildlife officers have set traps for the bear, but they likely won’t find her. Once a mother senses danger, she will move those cubs far from the area.

An incident such as that, distant from any city or any legitimate threat to those young, demonstrates the power of the parental instinct in nature. It also comes in stark contrast to the steady stream of news accounts we see that demonstrate the parental shortcomings among some of the two-legged residents of the planet.

We hear about very young children left home alone, fending for themselves while a parent is off shopping, partying, or engaging in illegal activities. There are sickening stories of infants and toddlers locked inside automobiles on sweltering summer days, and sometimes death is a result of this neglect.

There are tales of little kids continually exposed to violence and drug use in the home, or being used as innocent pawns in custody battles. Kids are left to roam the streets late at night, or not taught a basic respect for human life, including their elders.

There have been extreme and haunting cases locally — a baby strangled and stuffed in a freezer, a little girl being assaulted by her adoptive father, and little kids that come up missing in the midst of vindictive and emotionally charged feuds between their parents.

We could learn a bit about the duty of the parent to protect the child just by studying that mother bear, and the switch that flips in her psyche when she senses her young are being exposed to any kind of threat. But it’s not only the big and the burly in the animal world that take extreme measures to protect their offspring.

Take the tiny killdeer, a shore bird that’s a little larger than a sparrow, and a little smaller than a robin. Killdeer will nest on bare ground in fields, along the rocky shores of ponds and creeks, on railroad berms, and in grassy meadows. The entire Great Lakes region is part of its summer range and breeding grounds.

Fairly common in this area during the warm weather months, the killdeer will go to incredible lengths to guard its young, even employing a very convincing three-act drama.

When any potential threat gets within about 30 yards of the nesting site, it triggers the killdeer’s relentless protective instinct. First, this super parent of the animal world will make several swift passes near you, making it clear she is agitated over your presence.

Next, the screeching commences, and it continues unabated as the killdeer attempts to keep your eyes from ever locating that nest, or the tiny chicks that are likely hiding in the grass nearby. Finally, it is time for its innate defensive mechanism to kick into high gear.

The adult killdeer will drop to the ground in clear view of the perceived threat, and then roll over on its side while flopping around with one wing fully opened, giving the impression that it is wounded, unable to fly, and therefore very vulnerable. This feigned injury act is intended to distract the predator and present the parent as easy prey, to protect their young.

The killdeer will continue this charade until the perceived threat is far enough from the nest or the chicks, and then fly off while screeching what has to be a stern warning for you not to return. Walk the same pond shoreline a hundred times through the course of the season, and you will get 100 convincing performances of this parental protective drama.

The normally reclusive, ultrashy, and downright skittish white-tailed doe has been known to stomp a dog or coyote to death while the mother deer is guarding her fawns. Mule deer will take this “at any cost” parenting a step further, aggressively defending fawns of other does, not just their own.

There are many more examples of ultraparents in the woods, streams, forests, deserts, and oceans around the world. Observe wildlife for any period of time, and there are some valuable lessons to be learned.

In nature, the parents normally feed their young first, and go to astonishing lengths to protect them, often at risk of their own peril. If the parents are healthy, then neglect and abandonment are extremely rare, and abuse is nonexistent. We wish we could say the same for the human species.

Dead bobcat found on Central Avenue

The Ohio Division of Wildlife has confirmed that a road-killed adult female bobcat was picked up early Thursday morning along Central Avenue, outside Secor Metropark. No further information on the animal’s condition prior to its death or its likely origin will be available until an extensive necropsy is completed. In recent years, there have been sporadic but unconfirmed reports of bobcat sightings in the Secor Metropark area.

Bobcats are native to Ohio, but disappeared from the state by 1850. Over the past four decades, bobcat sightings have increased significantly in Ohio, and 169 bobcat reports were verified in the state in 2012.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.