Babes in the woods

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  • Many young sweet bunnies in a shed. A group of small colorful rabbits family feed on barn yard. Easter symbol

Having been born in spring myself, it’s not surprising that May has always been my favorite month. As a mom I also appreciate it being the month we celebrate Mother’s Day. A very appropriate time, considering that April and May are when most wildlife are born around these parts.

But don’t let the Disney imagery of fluffy young bunnies and leaping fawns lead you to believe that all is sweetness and light in nature’s yearly maternity wards. Not every animal mother is quite as devoted as I once thought, and not all new babies are as helpless.

In fact, within ecological circles, some species are known as “K-strategists,” while others are categorized as “r-strategists,” and there’s a world of difference between these extremes when it comes to caring for newborns.

Take rabbits. While the cliché about this species breeding like themselves is more than accurate, mamas of this r-strategist species only spend about five minutes with their litter of bunnies each day until they’re ready to survive on their own. This behavior may have evolved since, being prey animals, rabbits must breed and give birth often during the warmer months to combat the high infant mortality rate to which their young are prone. That’s what defines r-strategists: they produce lots of “cheap” offspring that require little in the way of energy investment.

Dandelions are r-strategists, and most rodents are too, a fact you may find hard to believe considering how many mice invade houses each year. But it may soften your heart to know these diminutive pests may all be the sole survivors of various large litters. Statistically it’s common for just one in 20 baby mice to survive long enough to eventually drive you crazy.

Compared to these species, K-strategist parents are larger and far more similar to their human “helicopter” counterparts. Foxes, deer, certain birds and bears are extremely nurturing to their young and give birth, accordingly, to fewer numbers at a time.

Deer usually only have one fawn with their first birth and no more than twins afterward, while fox litters typically number four kits. Baby groundhogs, usually born in April, aren’t mature enough to leave their dens until they’re at least a month old. And bears? One or two cubs is typical, depending on food sources during the mother’s long pregnancy. These smaller-sized families make more devoted parenting easier, obviously, but the fact that K-strategist young are born fairly helpless and dependent also make it absolutely necessary for survival, just as it is in humans.

So this spring, when a mouse eats its way through your car’s wiring, take a moment to consider its hard-knock infancy. And when a mama fox steals a chicken, know that she’s working herself ragged coddling her kits.

Deborah Guarino

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