The Amazing Diving Duckling

You might think that the month-old Long Lake duckling would have been satisfied with its lot. Facing certain death after it became separated from its mother and siblings four weeks ago, this youngster somehow crossed paths with a loon pair that was grieving for its own lost chick. Though they look somewhat alike on the water, loons and mallards are not closely related among birds. Loons’ closest relatives are penguins and pelicans; ducks’ are chickens and grouse. But dire need trumped phylogeny, in this case, and the loon pair and duckling became a family. The loons are attentive parents, as Linda Grenzer’s photo shows.

The difference in diet between loons and mallards proved no obstacle; the duckling greedily consumed fish captured and offered to it by its adopted parents. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Elaina and Linda also found that the duckling foraged on its own, taking invertebrates and possibly also plant material from the shore and passing vegetation, as a normal mallard duckling would.

LMG 26875 Baker Lake Loons n Duckling Splash Dive

Recently, though, the duckling has shown itself to be a far more versatile forager than any normal mallard. You see, it also dives. Linda verified this behavior with numerous video recordings. The duckling, moreover, does not dive for an instant and then pop immediately back up to the surface. It submerges itself for several seconds, reaching the bottom of the lake — which is more than a meter away — and returns to the surface. (Linda’s photo captured one of these plunges, just as the duckling’s tail was about to disappear beneath the water.) We know that the duckling dives deeply, because it sometimes grabs a prey item from the bottom, brings it up to the surface, and consumes the item next to its foster parents. While Linda watched, for example, the duckling captured and ate a snail.

To appreciate the shock I felt upon learning of the novel diving behavior of this mallard, one needs to understand a bit of duck taxonomy. Mallards are “dabbling ducks”, so named because their aquatic foraging consists of upending themselves — dunking their heads in the water and sticking their tails straight up in the air — while picking up small animal prey and plant matter from shorelines. They never become fully submerged, like loons do. As dabblers, mallards are allied with gadwall and teal, which feed similarly, and differ starkly from other group of ducks, like scaup and bufflehead, which are “diving ducks”. So by mimicking the diving behavior shown by its foster parents, this little duckling is thumbing his bill at a well-known scheme of avian taxonomy.

I would give a lot to get inside the duckling’s head and learn how and why it began to dive. Was it pure learning picked up from the loon pair, which dive constantly and might have served as role models? Or did the youngster attempt to dabble, find itself in water too deep for dabbling, and simply “extend” its dabbling efforts to reach the lake bottom, where food awaited? Either way, the duckling has shown incredible flexibility in acquiring food.

I never wanted to fall in love with this duckling. I thought that Daffy and Donald had ruined ducks for me forever. But this little guy’s plucky adaptability might just turn me around.