Let's Talk About Birds: 'Laughing thrushes'

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

Just when we think that family life can't get any busier, the month of December arrives. With it comes extra shopping, extra baking and all the decorating and entertaining you would desire for a lifetime.

Some of us thrive in the hustle of the season. But for most of us, the bustle is no laughing matter.

Unless you are Martha Stewart (or striving to be), accomplishing the holiday task list while juggling normal family life can be next to impossible without help from family, friends and neighbors. How grateful we are to have a few extra hands available when life gets hectic.

The busiest season for our feathered friends must be breeding season. In addition to foraging, seeking shelter and avoiding predators, breeding birds are actively courting, displaying, presenting gifts of food, building nests, laying eggs and incubating unhatched young. Hatching brings additional mouths to feed, helpless young to protect and fledglings to train. How do birds accomplish all of this? Do they get any help at all?

The answer for many species is yes. Few avian parenting strategies are more family-centered than that of two species of laughing thrush.

Native to Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, the white-crested laughing thrush is incredibly social. During a single breeding season, pairs form close bonds and can raise several groups of young during the season.

In order to be successful, the parents enlist help. They rely on their older children -- hatched from the first clutches of eggs -- to help feed and defend the youngest in their family. By sharing responsibility, all members of the family are ensured the greatest chance of survival to maturity.

In nearby China, the critically endangered blue-crowned laughing thrush practices a similar behavior -- sharing the care of young with other families within the population. It is not uncommon for adults to assist in feeding the young of other, sometimes unrelated, pairs.

This past summer, the National Aviary cared for both of these species of laughing thrush in our Tropical Forest room. At that time, we noticed several laughing thrush chicks being tended to by a team consisting of males and females from both species. With the nest built high in the exhibit, the chicks were inaccessible to staff, so it was impossible to tell which birds were the rightful parents. For two weeks, we eagerly waited for the chicks to fledge. At last, we saw them. The chicks were white-crested laughing thrushes. These birds can now be seen and heard following their parents from branch to branch, greeting visitors with their loud laugh-like call.

If you find that you need a few hours on your own to shop, reconnect or just relax, the National Aviary is here to help. Enroll your children in our special Parents Day Out program on Sunday.

The program includes up-close bird encounters, lure flying, making animal enrichment, the Parrots of the Caribbean show, and a hot lunch served by Atria's Kookaburra Cafe. Register your children by calling 412-258-9439.



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