Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University

Family Affair

Family Affair – The Rufous Treecreeper

By Gary Luck

Babies need to be taken care of. They need to be fed, kept warm and protected from things that might hurt them. Mum and Dad usually carry out these jobs, but other adults will also help to look after new arrivals. When you were born, you may have had an older brother or sister, or an aunty or uncle help care for you. In humans, looking after babies is often the responsibility of all family members, but did you know that for some animals, raising young is also a family affair?

The Rufous Treecreeper is a bird species that lives in the forests and woodlands of southern Western Australia. An interesting fact about the treecreeper is that it lives in family groups. These groups are often made up of an older male and female (Dad and Mum) and their sons and daughters. The family group occupies a small area in the woodland for the entire year and sometimes for many years. This area is called a territory or home range.

Like most birds, treecreepers breed in spring. They build nests in hollows (holes in the branches of trees) and all family members help to build the nest. Once the nest is built, the oldest female (Mum) lays between one to three eggs. She is the only one to sit on the eggs until they hatch. After hatching, there are always hungry nestlings to feed (Photo 1). This is where help from the family becomes important. Mum, Dad and the older brothers and sisters (born the previous breeding season) of the nestlings all help to feed the new born birds while they are still in the nest. This help is important because it ensures that enough food is brought to the nestlings and allows Mum to have a well-earned rest after the exhausting business of egg laying.

What is most interesting about the Rufous Treecreeper is that it is not only the immediate family that helps to feed the nestlings. On some occasions, treecreepers from neighbouring territories will also help. We are not sure if these birds are related to the nestlings they are feeding (for example, aunties or uncles) or just friendly neighbours. However, their help may be important in ensuring that the young nestlings get sufficient food until they are old enough to leave the nest and begin finding food for themselves (Photo 2).

Babies need care, and the job is made easier if the workload is shared among family members. Just like humans, some animals live in family groups that share the responsibility of raising young. With help from the family, these young soon become adults and are ready to take their turn at baby-sitting. Next time one of your family or friends has a new baby to care for, make sure you offer to help in whatever way you can. Remember that for animals like the Rufous Treecreeper, help from family members is very important in successfully raising nestlings and ultimately for the survival of the species.

Key references
  • Brown, J. L. 1987. Helping and Communal Breeding in Birds: Ecology and Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Clarke, M. F. 1995. Cooperative breeding in Australasian birds: a review of hypotheses and evidence. Corella 19: 73–90.
  • Cockburn, A. 1998. Evolution of helping behavior in cooperatively breeding birds. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29: 141–177.
  • Luck, G. W. In press. The demography and cooperative breeding behaviour of the Rufous Treecreeper Climacteris rufa. Australian Journal of Zoology.
  • Stacey, P. B. & Koenig, W. D. (Eds). 1990. Cooperative Breeding in Birds: Long-term Studies of Ecology and Behavior. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.