Caregiving is as varied as is animal life on earth. It begins with safeguarding the eggs. Certain birds bury their eggs in a mound of soil and vegetation, poking in their beaks to check the temperature. Others shed feathers onto their bellies to warm their eggs. Some fish protect their eggs by carrying them about in their mouth. Certain snakes shiver to raise their body temperature a few degrees to incubate their eggs.
In many species , it is the male who plays a stellar role. For example in Emperor Penguins , after the female lays the egg, it is Papa penguin who lays it on top of his feet and stays there not moving , or feeding for two whole months in the bitter Antarctic cold. When the egg hatches, he feeds the chick a special liquid from his throat. Daddy dearest often loses 20 kg over this period and sometimes even his life. Another selfless dad is the sea catfish whose mouth becomes a nursery as he swims around with a jaw-full of eggs the size of marbles, which he picks up shortly after the female lays them. He lives off his body fat for the two months it takes the eggs to hatch and his young to grow. Sea horses are the absolute top of the Pops. In a charming role reversal, the female courts the male and then plants her eggs in his pouch. While she swims off, the male knocks his body against a plant or rock to settle the eggs.As these embryos grow, the male seahorse's belly swells. Come delivery time in about a month, the seahorse doubles over to squeeze his swollen abdomen and out pop progeny—from 10 to 300 depending upon the species. He continues to protect his young until they can fend for themselves. He then dutifully returns to the same partner to mate again. After mating , the female giant water bug glues her eggs on the male's back. He strokes the eggs to clean them, does deep knee bends to aerate them,sometimes sits on the water surface to dry them off and get rid of parasites, and moves around deftly to avoid predators. Within a few weeks, the eggs triple in size. Right before they hatch, the male stops eating to avoid consuming his offspring. Once his young hatch and scatter, the male kicks the egg pads off his back with relief!
Provisioning the kids can be hard work. The Namaqua Sand Grouse , a bird that lives in the Kalahari desert, flies over 50 miles to find water. He soaks his feathers and makes the long , heavy return trip so that his chicks may sip the water from his feathers! Frogs lay eggs for their tadpoles to eat. Pigeons regurgitate a secretion from their throats for their chicks. Cockroaches eat and regurgitate bird poop to supply their young with the high nitrogen vital for growing roaches. Bird parents who fly off to find food risk their brood being attacked by hungry predators from squirrels and chipmunks to other birds. They also lay themselves open to being duped. The cuckoo is a creature that dispenses with every convention of home making and parenthood, and resorts to cunning to raise her family. She is a "brood parasite", a bird which never build her own nests but lays her eggs in the nest of another species, leaving those parents to care for her young. An expert in cruel deception, her strategy involves stealth, surprise and speed. The Cuckoo mother removes one egg of the host mother, lays her own and flies off with the host egg in her bill, the whole process taking barely ten seconds. Cuckoos parasitize the nests of a large variety of bird species and carefully mimic the colour and pattern of their own eggs to match that of their hosts. Each female cuckoo specializes in one particular host species. How the cuckoo manages to lay eggs to imitate each host's eggs so accurately is one of nature's mysteries.
Even more human than the big cats are monkeys who a study showed were able to teach their offspring to use tools. Female monkeys living in a 250-strong colony were observed by scientists teaching their young how to use strands of hair to clean between their teeth just like flossing! Just like us, most families stick together for safety. A family of shrews out for a stroll is an example. With the mother at the head of the line, each baby shrew latches its teeth onto the tail of the sibling in front, forming a snake-like caravan that scurries along the ground, breaks up for feeding and exploring, and reassembles at the slightest hint of danger.
Much like us , animals use punishment as a discliplinary tool. Mother dolphin checks errant offspring by pushing them down away from the surface to prevent breathing and then letting them go. She also emits a piecing noise that courses through their body like a gunshot. But animals almost exclusively use punishment only in dangerous situations. It seems they know instinctively that positive and negative reinforcement are more effective teaching methods than punishment.
There are no bad parents in the animal kingdom. Not even the deer and the hare who provide only minimal mothering, abandoning their young a day or two after birth and visiting just once a day at sunset to nurse them. Who do you think makes the best parent? My vote goes to the clever Cuckoo.