Birds are incredible creatures that have evolved many amazing abilities to survive and care for their young. As a curious reader, you may be wondering: can male birds produce milk for their babies? This is an intriguing question that reveals some fascinating truths about avian biology.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: No, male birds do not produce milk to feed their young. Only female birds have the anatomy needed to produce crop milk, a nutritious secretion from the crop organ that is regurgitated to hatchlings.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the topic of male lactation in birds in detail. We’ll look at the biology behind crop milk, examine which bird species do produce it, and explain why male birds lack this ability.

By the end, you’ll have a thorough understanding of this unique phenomenon in the avian world.

An Overview of Crop Milk in Birds

What is Crop Milk?

Crop milk is a secretion produced in the crops of certain birds to feed their hatchlings. The crop is an expanded portion of the esophagus used to store food before it passes to the rest of the digestive tract. Crop milk is very nutritious, containing proteins, fats, minerals, and immune molecules.

It is similar in function to the milk produced by mammals to feed their young.

There are only three groups of birds that are known to produce crop milk: flamingos, pigeons, and male emperor penguins. The milk is regurgitated to the chicks, who drink it quickly before it hardens. For most crop milk-producing species, both male and female parents make the milk.

However, for emperor penguins, only the male produces crop milk to feed newly hatched chicks.

Which Bird Species Produce Crop Milk?

As mentioned, there are three main bird groups that nourish their young with crop milk:

  • Flamingos – Both male and female flamingos produce highly nutritious crop milk for their chicks. According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, flamingo crop milk contains more protein than cow’s milk.
  • Pigeons and doves – Pigeon milk contains immune substances absent from flamingo and penguin crop milk. It is produced by both male and female parent birds from the lining of their crop.
  • Emperor penguins – Male emperor penguins incubate their single egg and produce a milk-like substance in their crop to feed the chick once it hatches. The production of this fluid causes the male bird to lose significant weight.
  • Researchers are still discovering unique properties and nutritional values of crop milk produced by various avian species. There may yet be other birds found to engage in crop feeding of their young.

    Bird Group Main Crop Milk Producers Unique Milk Properties
    Flamingos Male and female parents Very high protein content
    Pigeons and doves Male and female parents Contains immune molecules
    Emperor penguins Male parent only Enables chick growth in extreme cold

    The Biological Reasons Why Only Female Birds Produce Crop Milk

    The Reproductive Role of Females

    Female birds have evolved to produce crop milk to nourish their hatchlings as a key part of their reproductive role. The crop is an enlarged part of the esophagus where food is stored before passing on to the stomach.

    During breeding season, hormones trigger the lining of the crop to develop a cheese-like substance called crop milk which is very nutritious for young chicks.

    This ability to produce crop milk is unique to female birds as it is driven by the hormone prolactin. Prolactin is usually only present at high levels in female birds when they are incubating eggs and caring for hatchlings.

    It stimulates their crop to produce the milk-like secretion which the chicks drink by poking their beak into the parent’s throat.

    Male birds do not undergo this hormonal process and thus do not develop crop milk. Their reproductive role is focused on protecting the nest site and competing for mates rather than nourishing the young.

    So biologically, the female’s high prolactin levels specially equip her to feed the fast-growing chicks after hatching.

    Hormonal Differences Between Sexes

    The hormonal makeup between male and female birds is quite different. As mentioned, female birds have much higher levels of prolactin during the breeding season which enables them to produce crop milk.

    Males instead have higher levels of testosterone which drives their territorial behavior, mating displays and competition for females. Testosterone suppresses prolactin, so males are not capable of producing crop milk.

    Female Birds Male Birds
    – High prolactin levels – Higher testosterone levels
    – Stimulates crop milk production – Suppresses prolactin
    – Feeds hatchlings – Competes for mates

    Behaviors of Male Birds as Single Parents

    Incubation and Hatching

    After mating, the male bird often takes over incubating the eggs while the female leaves to feed and restore her health. The devoted dads patiently sit on the nest for weeks, keeping the eggs at optimal temperature while the embryos develop inside.

    Some species, like the splendid fairywren, even pluck feathers from their chest to allow eggs closer contact with their warm skin. Through this incredible dedication, the male ensures as many chicks hatch successfully as possible.

    According to research from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, over 90% of male birds help incubate eggs. Their caring assistance grants the female more chances to eat, resulting in healthier chicks. Truly, these fathers are models of attentive parenting right from the start.

    Regurgitation Feeding

    After the demanding incubation shifts, the real work begins – feeding the voracious chicks! Male birds are totally hands-on (or rather beaks-on) in providing nutrition to their offspring. Using their throat muscles, devoted dads regurgitate previously swallowed food into the gaping mouths of chicks.

    This pre-digested substance makes swallowing and digestion easier for the young ones.

    A 2020 research review in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution found that male birds in over 75% of species help feed chicks. From vultures to warblers, tanagers to owls, relatives far and wide pitch in.

    Their assistance allows mothers more time to replenish reserves and recuperate from the strains of breeding. Through teamwork, the parents can raise healthier, stronger offspring.

    Other Parental Care

    In addition to keeping eggs warm and baby birds fed, male birds engage in other essential parenting duties. These include nest defense, removing fecal sacs, shading chicks from weather, and teaching young fledglings after they leave the nest.

    For instance, several species of male hornbills seal their mate into the nest cavity while she incubates eggs and feeds newborns. Outside, the father acts as protector and provider, bringing food offerings and fiercely driving off predators.

    His care allows the mother to focus solely on raising healthy chicks during this vulnerable period.

    By working cooperatively as nurturing partners and parents, male and female birds can increase their reproductive success. The male’s involvement lightens the female’s burden, boosts her health, and ultimately creates better outcomes for offspring.

    Truly, fathers in the avian kingdom set a golden example of active, devoted parenthood from which human dads could learn a thing or two!

    Evolutionary Theories on Lack of Male Lactation in Birds

    Sexual Selection Pressure

    One leading theory for why male birds do not lactate is due to sexual selection pressures. In most bird species, females take on the majority of parental care duties, including incubating eggs, feeding hatchlings, and protecting the nest.

    This allows males to focus their energy on competing with other males to attract mates. The ability to lactate would likely confer little advantage to males in the mating game. In fact, it could even be seen as detrimental if it took resources away from the development of elaborate feathers, songs, and displays used to attract females.

    With no evolutionary advantage to lactation, the ability was not selected for in males over time.

    An interesting exception is the case of male mourning doves. Researchers found that male mourning doves actually produce a milk-like substance in their crop to feed newly hatched chicks. This ability likely evolved because mourning doves exhibit a high degree of paternal care compared to other birds.

    Both parents take turns incubating eggs and feeding hatchlings. So for mourning doves, the ability for males to lactate provides a direct benefit to their offspring’s survival. This example lends support to the idea that lactation in male birds has simply not been favored by sexual selection pressures in most species.

    Division of Reproductive Labor

    Another explanation involves the division of reproductive labor between the sexes. In mammals, lactation imposes a substantial cost on females in terms of energy and nutritional demands. To offset this cost, male mammals invest more heavily in other aspects of parental care such as provisioning food.

    This allows both parents to specialize in different care duties and collectively raise fitter offspring.

    In contrast, female birds directly provide nutrients to embryos via the egg yolk before hatching. So females already pay a high cost during the egg production stage. Once hatched, bird chicks are relatively mobile and able to feed independently at a much younger age than mammal newborns.

    They may only need supplemental feeding from the parents for a short time. Therefore, the marginal benefit of males also bearing the cost of lactation is much lower in birds compared to mammals. With limited advantages, natural selection likely did not favor the evolution of complex lactation abilities in male birds.

    Exceptions and Unique Cases

    Male Pigeons Producing Crop Milk

    Most male birds do not produce milk to feed their young. However, male pigeons are a unique exception to this rule. When a female pigeon is incubating eggs, the male pigeon produces a substance called “crop milk” to feed the young hatchlings.

    Crop milk is regurgitated from the crop of the male bird and contains fat, protein, and minerals crucial for the growth and development of baby pigeons. This nutritious secretion is similar in function to the milk produced by mammalian mothers.

    The production of crop milk allows male pigeons to take an active role in caring for their offspring. While the female incubates the eggs, the male works hard to feed the chicks once they hatch. Male pigeons produce crop milk for around 10 days until the chicks are old enough to digest seeds and regurgitated food from the parents.

    This amazing ability highlights the strong paternal instincts of male pigeons and their dedication to raising healthy chicks.

    Emperor Penguins: Role Reversal

    Emperor penguins are another unique bird species where males take on the role of providing “milk” for the young. During the bitter Antarctic winter, female emperor penguins leave the colony to go hunting in the ocean while the males stay behind to incubate the egg.

    To feed the chick after it hatches, male emperor penguins produce a milky substance from their esophageal gland that the baby penguin can digest.

    Researchers have found that emperor penguin “milk” contains crucial nutrients like protein, fat, and calcium. The father penguin metabolizes his own reserves to produce this milk-like substance which enables the chick to survive without the mother for an extended period.

    This complete role reversal, with the male providing nutrients and care, allows emperor penguins to successfully breed in the harsh polar climate where females need to leave to find food.


    While male birds are unable to produce crop milk to feed their chicks, they play critical roles in avian parenting. Through incubating eggs, gathering food, and protecting the nest, male birds devote themselves to raising healthy offspring – even if lactation remains solely a female function.

    The evolutionary reasons behind this divide in reproductive duties are multilayered and complex. By examining bird biology, behavior, and adaptations, we gain appreciation for the intricate strategies birds use to thrive.

    If you found this exploration of male bird lactation interesting, stay tuned for more articles illuminating the wonders of the natural world.

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