Most of us think of adult females as the main care-givers and protectors of the offspring. I am reminded of this constantly during my work. Several times a year, when I chat with a lake resident about their loons, I hear them say “She was on the nest today” or “The mom was feeding them down at the south end” or “She hollered like crazy when the eagle flew near the chicks”. It is natural for humans to infer that the female takes the lead in breeding activities; after all, we are mammals. In almost all mammals, females protect the young within their bodies for many weeks or months before they are born and continue to care for the young by themselves after they are born. Lengthy gestation makes male parental assistance superfluous, so mating systems have evolved in which males occupy themselves in other ways. Most mammals are either polygynous (one male mated with multiple females) or promiscuous (rapid mating and the lack of a pair bond). Females, in such cases, are left to provide most or all of the parental care, because males are either engaged in seeking out new mates or are not around at all.
Birds are different. Laying of eggs “frees” females, in the sense that they are not physically connected to the eggs and are no better equipped to care for eggs or young than are males. In birds, therefore, monogamy and biparental care are the rule. Most male birds mate with a single female and provide substantial assistance to her in rearing the young. Male loons, as I have noted in the past, incubate the eggs equally with females and actually provide somewhat more parental care for chicks. Thus, more often than not, when folks tell me that the female hollered at a menacing eagle, or the female was feeding the chick lots of minnows this morning, they have mistaken the male for the female. (This puts me in the awkward position of either correcting the mistake, at the risk of embarrassing my friend, or grinning good-naturedly and leaving the error unchallenged.)
I got one more reminder of male loons’ central role in reproduction during a statistical analysis this past week. I asked whether males or females show age-related changes in fledgling production as they mature from young territory holders to middle-aged to senescent adults. (Note that one bar is missing for each sex in the figure below: too few females settle by age 5 and too few males survive to age 24 to produce reliable estimates of reproduction for those age-classes.) Both sexes show an increase in fledgling production after their first few years on territory, a pattern seen in many animals. Females show
“reproductive senescence”, another widespread pattern, in that fledgling production declines near the end of life. What is surprising here is that males do not show a decline in fledgling production as they reach old age.
What is odd about the male pattern? We have growing evidence that male loons decline at a younger age and more severely than females do. Recent analyses have shown that males lose body weight as they age, and that males suffer a high rate of mortality, especially as they reach their late teens. And, of course, males engage in dangerous battles. So the capacity of old males to produce lots of chicks into their 20s runs counter to what we would expect based on male survival and body condition. How do they do it? We are still puzzling over the pattern, but the most likely explanation is that old males invest heavily in chick production — perhaps through extra feedings of chicks or an extended period of care — to crank out a few more chicks before the wheels come off completely. Hence, old male loons appear to make a “terminal investment” in breeding success. Of course, nothing is free. Terminal investment is a deal with the devil; high chick-rearing success comes at the cost of earlier death.