Precocial and altricial

Say what?

Ran into these two words in a new bird book my wife Jen bought recently, What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by David Allen Sibley.

Isn’t that a grand and curious title? I mean, a title to inspire curiosity?

Just about everyone, I think, at some time, has wanted to fly like a bird, at least for a short while, before descending once again (not crashing) to earth.

But these two new words, precocial and altricial? I’m not much of a birder, though Jen and I feed birds in our backyard and try to identify them. 

Precocial? I might have first read precocious.

Altricial | All Birds Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia
Oh, mammy, are we hungry or what? Altricial birds in the nest.

Yes, the words are related, both signifying early development. (According to, precocious first appears in English in the 17th century and derives “from Latin praecox early maturing, from prae early + coquere to ripen.”)

But precocial means, roughly, that a bird is born eyes wide and able to take care of itself more or less. Think chickens.

Or, to cite the dictionary once more, “Born or hatched in a condition requiring relatively little parental care, as by having hair or feathers, open eyes, and the ability to move about. Water birds, reptiles, and herd animals usually have precocial young. Compare altricial” (American Heritage Science Dictionary).

Altricial, on the other hand, signifies a bird (think most birds), or other animal, that’s naked and pretty helpless at birth without parental care and protection.

To speak metaphorically, we might designate human beings who still need care, despite their age, as altricial. “Oh, do grow up, man!” (Some might be our relatives, sigh.) Those who are precocial or precocious can take care of themselves fully and fly with the best of ’em.




Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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