Held Captive to Instinct

by Dave Hanks

How do animals know certain behaviors to perform when they have not been taught that behavior? How do butterflies and many birds know a migration route they have never previously followed? How do most animal mothers instinctively know what to do at birthing or hatching time? We humans are usually taught, and with the power of reason, we have the ability to think things out. Our DNA code is a powerful influence, but to an animal it is almost everything. They learn some things from their parents but are mostly controlled by their DNA – or in other words, with no chance for choices makes one a slave to each stimulus. The ROYAL TERN is a random example. Much of its behavior is programmed before hatching.

This is our second (next to the Caspian Tern) largest tern. It has a heavy, orange bill, a spiky, black crest and cap, a pale gray dorsal surface, and a white face, neck, and ventral surface. This tern summers on our southern coasts of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They are rarely found inland. Their fall migration route takes them to Argentina or Peru. Why migrate so far? – Their DNA requires them to.

This bird nests in large colonies and courtship involves the male offering a fish to his prospective mate. Why do they all do this? Their DNA requires it. Nests are in scrapes on the beach, and if washed away by a storm, they will make another attempt to nest. Royal Terns will defecate from the rim of their nest. It has been suggested that when the feces harden, the nest is reinforced against flooding. Once again, DNA is at work.

The chicks leave the scrape within one day after hatching and gather in a huge group called a CRECHE. Parents can recognize and feed their own chicks – differentiating them from others in the group. Evidently each chick’s call is recognizable. The adults are often seen hovering 20 to 30 feet above the water as they patrol for fish – their main food source.

A confrontation along the Texas coast.  Two Royal turns squawk at each other while standing in shallow water

A confrontation along the Texas coast)

The Mothering Instinct

by Dave Hanks

There is no doubt that Fathers can be concerned for their offspring. But they can’t compare to Mom and her parental concern. This is because of two hormones – hormones produced in quantity within the female. (A hormone is a secretion, peptide or steroid, produced by a specific tissue and transported by the blood stream to another tissue where it stimulates a reaction.) The mothering hormones involved are Luteotropic (LTH), also known as Prolactin, and Oxytocin.

Oxytocin causes uterus contractions (labor) and stimulates the production of LTH which is associated with lactation. The manual stimulus caused by the infant nursing, is stimulus for the continual production of these two hormones. Experiments have shown that even virgin females exhibit mothering traits when injected with doses of these hormones. These hormones are especially active in mammals, but birds are also recipients of their effects – although the lack of mammary glands prevents the production of milk, but the hormones do stimulate the parenting instinct. Most snakes and other species, that do not produce LTH, have no concern for their young and may even do them harm.

Females are easily emotional and unpredictable (hormonal effects). The cow moose or mother bear for instance can be extremely dangerous; in fact mothers with young of all species require greater caution when approaching than their male counterparts. Birds take dangerous chances to protect their young, giraffe mothers have given their lives to lions, and African elephants have attacked jeeps when sensing a threat to their babies.

Perhaps the small, cute, cuddly appearance of the young is a visual stimulus that also helps trigger the parenting response. Whatever the combination of stimuli, the mothering instinct is a very strong emotion!

Adorable baby Mountain Goats romp under Mom’s watchful care

Adorable baby Mountain Goats romp under Mom’s watchful care