Spring’s panoply of flowers is one of nature’s greatest joys. Of course, flowers don’t have to defend themselves from predators. Nor does a tulip need to scour the landscape to feed the young growing around it.
Birds do.That’s why, for my money, the terms “altricial” and “precocial” embody the amazing wisdom of nature. They describe the two conditions baby birds enter this world.
Altricial means “born in an underdeveloped state” – blind, helpless, featherless and in need of warmth and feeding. Those baby American Robins hatching in your hanging planter? They’re altricial, as are the young of all songbirds, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, swallows and raptors.
Precocial is the opposite. It means “indicative of early development”. (As in when you describe an oddly mature 8-year-old as a “precocious youth.”) Precocial birds hatch with a full set of downy feathers, eyes open and are ready to walk, run and swim just hours after hatching. Ducklings are the best example, but most shorebirds and quail are precocial, too.
So why the difference? Here’s where nature kicks in. Birds with altricial young lay fewer eggs but make nests. And nests, self-contained and often well-hidden, equal protection. So, their young can afford to be helpless in the first weeks of life and still (mostly) make it to maturity.
Precocial birds lay more eggs, but their nests are often on the ground in relatively open environments where they’re more vulnerable to predators. Their young, quite literally, need to hit the ground running (or water swimming) to travel with adults for food and protection. That’s how they earn the best shot at growing up.
So, this spring, as you watch those baby American Robins mature or a Mallard momma waddle with her fuzzy young, say “How amazing!” instead of just “How cute!” Because Mother Nature is truly a genius.