Saturday 20 September 2014

Why are wader chicks so cute?

Well, there is one thing for sure, they have not evolved this way just so we humans can look at them and go ahhhhhh in a gooey and insipid way!

Wader chicks are among the most adorable of all chicks in the avian world. Those bald and blind nestlings of passerines or the less than elegant squabs of pigeons and even the elegant raptors start life as ungainly monsters and don't even get me started on owls!

Little Ringed Plover chick Charadrius dubius; Norfolk, England. June 2012.

Baby birds come in two forms, those that can pretty much fend for themselves right out of the egg and others that cannot. Each of course has a technical name, the waders and other birds that come in the category of being mobile and self reliant to some extent soon after hatching are called precocial as mentioned in our recent blog about the lapwing being an ideal candidate for Britain's national bird and a guest blog by Angela Dwyer about the Mountain Plovers. This word is similar to precocious and, much in the same way that a precocious child will often behave in a way that is unusually advanced for his or her years, a precocial chick is advanced in its maturity at hatching. Those that are not are called altricial and the chicks are more or less helpless at hatching. These two terms basically refer to the amount of support that they need after hatching from their parents.

This ability to fend for themselves to a large extent is what makes the head starting programme for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper even possible. The eggs can be hatched in captivity and the chicks will feed themselves with no adults around at all. Once strong enough they can then be released into outdoor pens free from the threat of predation and eventually released into the wild to take their chances with the wild fledged birds.

Southern Lapwing Vanellus chilensis; São Paulo, Brazil. October 2013.

These two terms should not be confused with nudifugous and nudicolus which refer to whether or not the chick remains in the nest; the former being those that leave the nest almost immediately, like our wader chicks, the latter refers to birds like thrushes and herons and the like, where the young stay in the nest for some time and are at the same time, by dint, altricial, relying on their parents for their sustenance.

Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella; Western Australia, Australia. September 2013.

So, when a wader chick hatches, once it has dried and found its feet, providing its siblings have reached the same stage it will often then leave the nest en famille never to return.

Double-banded Courser Rhinoptilus africanus: Orange Free State, South Africa. September 2013.

To achieve this the birds must have good vision and mobility hence their big eyes and often ungainly feet and long legs which are some of the factors that elicit the ahh factor we bestow upon them.

Killdeer Charadrius vociferus: Texas USA. April 2013.

The other facet of their character is that they are little balls of fluff to all intents and purposes. They will not be kept warm all the time by their parents, so they have to emerge from the egg with insulation, hence the fluff. They would be unable to develop true feathers with the confines of the shell, to do so it would have to be so large that the female would be unable to lay it.

Apart from being fluffy they are almost always intricately patterned, this of course adds to their attractiveness, but as stated this is not its purpose. This mottling and streaking is of course designed to camouflage the birds so that if they sit still in suitable habitat, they will be rendered all but invisible to predators.

At first glance all you can see is this adult Bush Thick-knee Burhinus grallarius. But look again, at the adults feet are two well hidden chicks that you would never notice if the adult was not there. Queensland, Australia. September 2013.

With the possible exception of duckings, wader chicks are undoubtedly the most attractive bird chicks ever. With perhaps the most adorable being the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, there is little that comes close to the cuteness of this little mite.

24 hour old Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus; the cutest chick on earth?
Photo: Paul Marshall WWT


  1. Hi! This text is great! Congrats! I loved it!
    Also, I was wondering if you would allow me to translate and adapt it to Portuguese to publish on the facebook page Aves Marinhas e Costeiras. Of course, all the credits would be maintained and cited.
    Best regards,
    Bianca Vieira

  2. Hi Bianca. We'd be honoured to have you translate this text, please feel free to do so. Perhaps you'd email us on so we can talk more.