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Parenting Isn’t So Difficult–By Comparison

by Susan Tweit

Anyone who has ever raised kids has had at least one moment of wondering why in the world you wanted to be a parent in the first place and whether it’s possible to survive with your sanity intact, as well as at least one moment when you realize there’s nothing more wonderful than being your kid’s parent.

So when a friend asked me to come up with a list of bird species that represent diverse family-rearing habits to illustrate a book of parenting aphorisms, I was intrigued. Reading about what birds go through to raise their young gave me a whole new perspective on parenting.

Consider the wandering albatross, which gets its name because these birds spend their lives riding the air currents over the open ocean hundreds or thousands of miles from land.

Wandering albatrosses truly live in the air: gliding on wings that span 11 feet from tip to tip, they coast the troughs between waves, and then catch a lift on the turbulent air over a crest to glide the next trough, rarely beating their wings or landing.

These consummate flyers feed on fish and squid caught near the water’s surface, and return to land only when ready to mate. Between seven and ten years of age, they head to the very island where they were born, find their lifelong mate, and nest.

The female wandering albatross lays one large egg, which both parents incubate for two months. When that egg finally hatches, the parents take turns: one cares for the chick, the other heads far out over the ocean to fish; for the next nine months, the parents fly hundreds-of-mile-long commutes between fishing grounds and the gaping mouth of their only chick.

From mating to the fledgling’s first flight takes more than a year, so wandering albatrosses breed only every other year. Surely there’s a medal for parental patience there!

Or consider emperor penguins, the stars of the movie “March of the Penguins,” which chronicled these flightless birds’ trek from ocean, where they are champion swimmers, to inland nesting grounds when they reach breeding age.

Like wandering albatrosses, emperor penguins spend years away from land eating and accumulating sufficient stores of body fat to survive the rigors of parenthood. And rigorous it is: After the female lays a single egg, she heads back to the ocean to feed and rebuild the reserves she used in producing and laying that oversized egg.

Her mate, meanwhile, stands on the Antarctic ice in temperatures that drop to more than minus 60 degrees for about 65 days, holding that precious egg between his feet and his lower belly. Did I mention that he doesn’t eat during that time?

After the chick hatches, he continues to shelter it, and feeds his downy young a milky fluid formed by metabolizing his own fat. When his mate returns, the male emperor penguin, much thinner now, walks miles back to the ocean to catch his first food in months.

Even raising human teenagers isn’t as hard as that!

Copyright 2009 Susan J. Tweit. Originally published in the Salida Mountain Mail.

Award-winning writer and commentator Susan J. Tweit lives and gardens in Salida when she’s not on the road promoting her new memoir, Walking Nature Home, which inspired one reviewer to write, “You simply must read this book.”