Watching wildlife is always fun and rewarding. But when you have an opportunity to watch the varied reproductive behaviors found in nature – that’s when things get really interesting.

Watching wildlife is always fun and rewarding. But when you have an opportunity to watch the varied reproductive behaviors found in nature – that’s when things get really interesting.

It is always inspiring to watch human parents exhibit extreme gentleness with their offspring: how they show patience, consideration and deep concern for their young ones. But few other critters show the same levels of concern. Sometimes they help them get from point A to point B, some show them where to look for food, where to sleep, when to watch out, how to clean themselves and so many other nurturing things. Without this parenting, some species would never make it to adulthood. Others seem to do with zero care. What gives?

Our first clue as to the effectiveness of each parenting strategy comes when we look at how many babies something has at one time. When we consider that humans typically have just one baby at a time, this indicates that there is a good chance for its survival. All our energy is directed toward that one (or sometimes more) little human that has come into the world. The more offspring something has, the more unlikely it is for them to survive to reproductive age. There is only so much attention and care that can be spread around to all those progenies.

We always have ducks that hang around here, and one year we saw three nests and clutches totaling over thirty ducklings. That’s a lot of ducks and a lot of parenting to observe. And like most birds, the mama duck led them around and quacked her quacks for their welfare. But little by little, the numbers dwindled – usually for reasons not apparent. If all the ducklings lived on all the time, we’d be in trouble and overrun with the quackers! Not as visibly, other birds nest nearby with variable amounts of chicks – all reflecting how well they do at raising them safely.

In stark contrast to these parents are the fish mothers that we deal with on a daily basis. Both trout and sturgeon spawn by laying their eggs after an upstream journey. Once the future generation has been deposited in the streambed, the parental urges cease. The young are left to hatch on their own and to fend for themselves thereafter. This is reflected in the number of eggs for each spawn – trout can produce 3000 at a time, and sturgeon up to 50,000! This is the number that is predicted to carry on the species, or basically just replace the parent fish. That is an astronomically high mortality rate!

At the hatchery you can find many other parents that simply abandon their offspring and go on their merry way. These will be critters that produce hundreds of young (usually eggs) – including frogs, toads, dragonflies, midges and other water bugs. Some of these are quite fascinating if you’ll just take the time to watch the smaller world around us.

And also think about the plants and trees that produce many thousands of seeds every year – most never germinating to grow and carry on the species. Believe it or not, there actually is some parenting going on here too! For example, fruits are often formed to help the future plant find a new home. Apples are round to roll away from the parent plant, many edible fruits are designed to be eaten and the seeds deposited in a new place in a manure starter, and other seeds are transported by wind or fur to start anew elsewhere. All parenting strategies.

There are plenty of lessons to learn from nature around here! As fishery biologists, that is exactly what we strive to accomplish, and our survival rate for baby fish is far better than nature displays. Parenting and nurturing is very much a part of what we do daily at the Neosho Hatchery!


Bruce Hallman, Environmental Education Specialist, Neosho National Fish Hatchery. He writes a column for the Neosho Daily News.