Grief and parental instincts in the animal kingdom

I don’t think the parental instinct exists in all creatures. And yes, I think the maternal instinct is more universal among the animal kingdom, but I chanced to witness a glimpse this morning of the parental instinct of Florida Sandhill Cranes.

Florida’s sandhill cranes are a protected species. They aren’t endangered, exactly, but their natural habitat has largely been lost to urban development and sprawl. So that makes them protected, I guess. And their protected status means there’s a hefty fine attached to causing them harm.

A Florida Sandhill Crane family crossing the road near our house, taken April 25, 2012

Anyway, there’s a little family of four that The Boy and I often see in the mornings and occasionally on our way home from school. I love seeing these family units. Not only are the birds so beautiful and incredibly graceful on their long, spindly legs, but you almost always see them in pairs or traveling as a full family unit.

This morning was heartbreaking, though, as I saw two adult cranes standing in the middle of the road. At their feet were the bodies of their two offspring, their little bodies having been crushed just minutes before by an unobservant motorist. When I saw the cranes standing stalwart in the road, I slowed to see if the chicks were only injured; if that was the case, I would have tried to help them. But the chicks just lay there in their own blood, unmoving, while their parents helplessly stood guard.

I’ve heard of mares that birth stillborn foals and faithfully stand watch over their babies, waiting for them to wake up and begin nursing. Sometimes this lasts for hours; sometimes it can be as long as a day. But in every case, the mare needs to go through a mourning period to fully process her loss.

I wondered during my morning commute if the sandhill cranes needed a similar mourning period.  And then I wondered if I would still see them waiting there on my way home this afternoon.

The Boy, thankfully, did not see the chicks this morning; he only saw the adult birds standing in the road. He did, however, hear me gasp and say, “Oh, poor Mommy and Daddy birds!” When he asked what happened, I explained that the two baby birds were hit by a car and that the mommy and daddy birds were watching over them.

“I think the baby birds will be okay,” he assured me.

“I hope so,” I replied.

“You know, Mom,” he said with the knowledgeable confidence only a 5-year-old possesses, “playing in the street is very dangerous. Those baby birds should have stayed on the sidewalk.”

Well, yes, I suppose that’s one way to look at it.

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