Friday ducks (and turtle lagniappe)

June 18, 2021 • 12:30 pm

All is well and peaceful on Botany Pond, with the two cohorts (four broods) getting along well. First let’s see America’s Most Famous Mallard, Honey, in a formal portrait. She has been with her four ducklings for several weeks now, after a satanic drake drove her away from her brood for about two weeks (they had to take care of themselves, but we made sure they were fed). For some reason that drake left, there was a grand reunion, and now they’re back to being a family again.

Honey smiling:

Honey swimming:

Honey’s four scruffy teenagers:

Honey, her drake Shmuley, and one of their offspring, who in this photo is getting up there with tail feathers and a rudimentary speculum.

A video of Honey and her four getting out of the main pond (one has a bit of trouble) and crossing the sidewalk to get to the channel on the other side.

Here’s Dorothy, who had 11 ducklings originally. We lost one, and she expelled another (the “Peepster”) from the brood). The Peepster was alone and sad, chased around a lot by other ducks, and peeped a lot, but we fed him well and he’s managed to bring himself up to nearly a full-sized duck. He’s going to be fine, despite his status as a pariah.

I’ll show the photos as Dorothy’s babies grow up. Newborns:

Dorthy’s brood as it ages. Here she is sitting on them on a chilly day.

On warmer days they huddle together but don’t need Mom to sit on them for warmth. But ducks are social creatures and the broods stay together until they get older and fully feathered.

The brood slightly older, starting to grow feathers:

The feathers start as “epaulets” on the rudimentary wings, and then on the tail, and then grow backwards and forwards to meet.

Look at these ugly ducklings!

Dorothy’s brood just yesterday—fully feathered but without large primary feathers on the wings, so they won’t be flying for about a week or so. Dorothy is in the foreground, right—attentive as always.

Here’s the Peepster about two weeks ago, looking sad and scruffy as his feathers begin coming in. No other duck likes him—he’s the lowest duck in the pecking order. Despite that, he’s developing just like his sibs and will be fine.

Here’s Dorothy’s Armada flapping, diving and splashing after their lunch the other day. Notice that their wings are larger, but still not full sized. (Video by Jean Greenberg)

Shirley Rose crossing the path with her brood of 12. We lost two of these, but since then she’s been stable at ten. Make way for ducklings! Note the baby having a sip from a muddy puddle.

Courtship of the turtles.  These are red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), of which the pond harbors several dozen. Greg told me that the small one is a male, and he has special large claws on his forelegs that he uses to stroke the female’s face during courtship. He then goes behind her in a mating ritual. We’re too far north for this species to breed, but they still try. (These turtles undoubtedly descend from pets that were put into the pond. They can thrive here, but it’s too cold for them to nest and breed.

Meet the new Botany Pond babies!

June 13, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Meet Shirley Rose with her ten ducklings, who jumped down to the pond on June 3:

The “fam” resting in a clump on the grass. Doesn’t Shirley Rose look proud? She’s been a great mother, defending her brood against all comers and rounding up any straggler ducklings who get lost and peep piteously for mom.

Why did the duckings cross the road? Who knows? Note the duckling stopping to drink from a mud puddle.

And the gang foraging in the grass at 13 days old. Their peeping is endearing.

Misty (named after the ballerina Misty Copeland because of the hen’s graceful neck and demeanor) hung around the pond all spring, and we didn’t really want another duck breeding there, so we never fed her. Nevertheless, she persisted, eking out stray duck pellets and nesting somewhere we don’t know. She appeared at the pond with five gorgeous ducklings on May 28, two days before Shirley’s brood appeared. Fortunately, the two groups managed to keep themselves sorted out, and there was no rancor (or ducknapping) between the broods. Both Misty and Shirley Rose are terrific moms.

Meet Misty & Co.: The very first few minutes in the water after their big morning leap:

Mom anxiously overlooking her brood:

Resting under the apple tree with Mom just two days ago, when it was hot. It’s easy to miss them as they’re cryptically colored, and the yellow and brown pattern makes the ducklings look like sun-dappled forest floor:

An afternoon nap:

Misty giving her babies diving lessons on June 4, when they were just a week old:

One day later, the brood practices more dives. A big ol’ turtle nearby doesn’t care. Video by Jean Greenberg.

The two broods near each other on June 2. Misty’s are five days old, Shirley’s only three. Video by Jean Greenberg:

Duck news!!

June 12, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I haven’t reported the fact that in the last two weeks we’ve had two new crops of ducklings (a total of 15), as it’s very crowded with people on campus during graduation and I didn’t want to draw a lot of folks to the pond who might disturb the ducklings. (I do, however, spend a lot of time explaining ducks to those who show up and spot the babies).

But the babies are now past the sensitive stage, and I’ll soon show some pictures of our two new broods: one from Misty (five ducklings) and one from Shirley Rose (ten ducklings). I have lots of adorable pictures, as well as video and some bonus video of our turtles courting each other in the pond. The other thirteen are now teenagers and, I calculate, should start flying within two weeks. I’ll have photos of those as well.

I’m also very happy to report that all the ducks, young and old, are coexisting without rancor, something I was really worried about.  Further, Honey has reclaimed her brood of four, and they’re a tight little family again, although her “babies” now look like miniature Honeys.

In the meantime, have a picture of one of our new ducklings, as well as one of me feeding Honey out of my hand just this afternoon.

It’s hot  today, and all the ducklings, both new ones and teenagers, are having a snooze in the shade.

One of Misty’s five ducklings on the day it entered the water for the first time.

Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) feeding mealworms to America’s most famous mallard (photo by Jean Greenberg):

Waddles the Duck gets a prosthetic leg

June 10, 2021 • 2:30 pm

OMG they made a prosthetic leg for a male mallard and it works! Is there anything more satisfying than seeing a lame duck walk again? It takes Waddles a bit to learn how to walk, but we’re reassured that he’ll get better and better with time.

Nerdist tells us a bit more of the story, but not of the fate of Waddles and his new leg. But there is also some general information:

Laughing Squid picked up on Waddles first-ever go-round with his new, prosthetic leg. The crew at Bionic Pets made the leg for the wildly cute duck in an attempt to vastly improve his quality of life. And in the video clip above from the National Geographic show, The Wizard of Paws, we see Derek Campana from Bionic Pets strap Waddles to his fun, faux leg for the first time.

. . . Campana says this tech’s “not only cool for Waddles, but for all the birds to come” who’ll also benefit from cutting-edge prosthetics. Indeed, we’ve perused the Bionic Pets site, and Campana and company are working on some seriously cool animal prosthetics.

Kudos to all the people who care enough to help hobbled animals live a good life.

h/t: Jean, Tim

Honey the Duck eats from my hand!

June 9, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Over the years Honey the Duck has eaten sporadically from my hand. Right now she’s especially tame and friendly, and has been eating duck pellets from the outstretched hands of members of Team Duck. Here she is eating from my hand.  Video and photo below it by Jean Greenberg:

My girl! Shmuley was there too, but he’s too timorous to approach.

How many ducks were there?

June 5, 2021 • 8:45 am

In my “find the duck” photo of yesterday (below), I asked readers to find the mallard hen. It turns out that there was not just one, but FOUR, as astute readers discovered. Here’s the original photo and the four mallard hens, all circled.

Four—count them, four—hens! (Click on the photo to enlarge; one was in the water.) They’re pretty cryptic, no?

But wait! Maybe there are MORE ducks!  A reader spotted something behind the tree itself, and the mottled pattern makes me think it’s the breast of a FIFTH hen. I’ll check today to see if there’s a bump on the trunk, but I doubt it. Here’s the putative fifth hen:


Spot the hen!

June 4, 2021 • 9:45 am

This one is pretty easy—so easy, in fact, that I won’t give the answer.  It’s a photo of a single mallard hen resting under a tree in yesterday’s heat. I put it up just to demonstrate how cryptic these females are in a woodsy situation.  The colorful drakes, of course, would stick out like a sore thumb: the price they pay (via predation risk) for being attractive to the hens. Clearly the risk of predation is outweighed by the “need” to attract a hen.

Click on the photo to enlarge it.

How I spent my afternoon

May 31, 2021 • 1:15 pm

While hanging out at the duck pond for some waterfowl meditation, I was accosted by two women students who came to the pond. One was holding a newborn duckling (not necessarily a mallard) that had been found outside a Starbucks two blocks away. The duckling was following some people, and had obviously lost its brood.

The students, who apparently knew who “Jerry” was, and that he had something to do with rescuing ducks, needed help, and who am I to refuse? “If you save one life, it is as if you saved the world.” A quick call to Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, and we drove the poor thing a few blocks to a rehab expert, who will have it sent tomorrow to Willowbrook Wildlife Rescue Center, which rescues native wildlife.

Here’s a member of Team Duck holding the baby before we drove it to the rehab lady:

And a close-up. I’m not 100% sure it will make it, but I’m 100% sure that if we didn’t have it rehabbed, it wouldn’t have made it.

Now, what species is this? A friend says it’s definitely not a mallard, but may be a wood duck.

Here’s a photo of wood ducklings from the Endless Wonder blog (photo by Duke Coonrad). It does look like a woody:

And here’s Honey, who’s still around. The drakes seem to have been leaving her alone, so he’s able to spend time with her four “babies”. Unfortunately, their time apart has made her a bit diffident, so she snaps at them from time to time. She may just be old and grouchy.

Thursday ducks

May 27, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Various factors, including overwork, malaise, and my forgetfulness about bringing my camera to the pond; these have all stemmed the flow of duck pictures, but I’ll try to bring you up to date today. Things are going tolerably well at the pond but we have had some drama and difficulties.

Here is Dorothy with her nine babies. Remember, she had ten, but for reasons unknown to us she expelled one from her brood. That lone duck, known as “The Peepster” for his erstwhile peeping for mom, is shunned by all other ducks. But we take special care of him and he is growing well: in fact, he’s more advanced in development than are the other ducklings. You can see below that Dorothy’s kids are starting to grow their adult plumage, with feathers on their tails and on their tiny, stubby wings.

Because of one duckling murder, two unknown deaths, and two ducklings I got rehabbed at a wildlife sanctuary, Honey is down to four ducklings. Here’s her remaining brood. She tries to be with them, but a nasty drake flies in several times a day and chases her away.

The result is that her babies are without a mother most of the time. The upside is that they know each other and remain together, sleeping in a pile and eating together. I am sure that they, like the Peepster, will grow well and fledge. They are doing well, but feeding two broods and a singleton is not an easy task!  Here’s a rare moment of Honey with her brood.

And here’s the sad, lonely Peepster. You can see that he’s entered the scruffy teenage phase, losing his down and getting feathers. But he’s also in excellent shape, though I do with I could find him a friend.

Another view of the Peepster by the pond ruler. At this point the pond is 2.2 feet deep (for some reason they measure feet in tenths rather than inches).

The Peepster wants to hang with Honey’s four, but they don’t like him much, so I often find him near them. They chase him away. Trying to feed them all when they’re like this is, well, trying. But I always succeed!

Here’s a video of Dorothy’s babies taken two days after they jumped down to the pond. You can see how eager they are to be with her! And see how fast they can swim! All videos by Jean Greenberg.


And a video of Dorothy’s brood from three days ago, foraging on the bank. How they’ve grown. I like the bit where one duckling flaps its tiny wings:

Dorothy on “duck plaza” napping with her brood:

Rarely, both hens would tolerate each other and their respective broods on the bank. Dorothy’s brood is in the foreground. The fence is essential to keep people from disturbing the babies, who are easily spooked.

Here are Honey’s brood practicing their diving skills by the duck ramp, which was put up to allow the ducks to march out of the pond. They do use it, but sometimes, as in this video, it’s occluded by basking turtles.

Part of my pleasure as Duckmeister is to lecture to and answer questions about Botany Pond and its ducks from children of Chicago’s famous Laboratory School, which teaches kids from nursery school through 12th grade. (The school, affiliated with the University of Chicago, was founded by John Dewey in 1896.)

We usually get younger classes visiting the pond. Here I am yesterday talking to a class of 5- and 6-year olds. Notice how well behaved they are!  They love to watch and draw the ducks, and I love to tell them about the ducks.

The usual procedure is a short talk about ducks by me, followed by the children helping me feed them (sometimes feeding is difficult when the ducks are skittish). Then there’s my favorite part, the Q&A session. These are smart and inquisitive children, and they have many questions, including some that I can’t answer. One I had yesterday was: “How do they know how to fly?” My response, which may have been too subtle, was to ask the student, “How did you know how to walk?” But really, it’s the same principle. Kids don’t know they’ll be able to walk, and ducks don’t know they’ll be able to fly. It’s inborn: the result of evolved genes with perhaps a bit of learning. One day, a child gets up and takes a few steps, and a duckling flaps their wings and flies a few feet.

One young man showing excellent form feeding Dorothy’s brood. I told the kids to throw hard, as the kids are small and the ducks are some distance away. This is optimal form for duck-feeding.

The ducks are now at the age when they celebrate the end of their afternoon meals by zooming around the pond and engaging in all sorts of aquatic antics: diving, racing, and, for Dorothy, flying a bit. Here are two videos showing those behaviors. Halfway through the video you can see Honey standing on the bank overlooking her brood of four.


Thanks to the Lab School for giving me permission to post the two photos of the Duck Lecture.

Readers’ wildlife photos

May 26, 2021 • 8:00 am

Readers, please send in your good wildlife photos, as my tank is running low.

Today, after a hiatus, evolutionary ornithologist and ecologist Bruce Lyon has returned with one of his science-plus-photo posts. His captions are indented and you can enlarge Bruce’s photos by clicking on them. His topic is one that’s been on my mind this year: adoption and brood desertion in ducks.

Given the recent duck conflict and infanticide on Botany Pond by Jerry’s office, I thought readers would be interested in some information about adoption in ducks. In 1986 I did an experimental study on adoption in Barrow’s goldeneyes (Bucephala islandica) with John Eadie. Eadie, now a professor at UC Davis, is a leading expert on waterfowl ecology, behavior and management. He wrote the foundational synthesis paper on brood parasitism and adoption in waterfowl just as he was starting his PhD at the University of British Columbia, and he studied these ideas with field work on goldeneyes at a gorgeous study site in the Cariboo region of central British Columbia. We joined forces during his PhD work to do an experiment with his study population. I will start with some natural history photos of the ducks and then get to our study.

Below: John Eadie on recent trip to check his original goldeneye study population in BC.

Below: Typical Barrow’s goldeneye habitat: a mix of wooded and grassland areas. This was early spring (May) and the aspen trees have not yet leafed out and the marsh vegetation is brown with last year’s dead growth. Goldeneye nest in tree cavities, and the trees have to be somewhat near water. Nests up to 2 km from water have been reported. Within a day or two of hatching, the ducklings jump from the nest and follow their mother on an overland march to the wetland where they will then grow up.

Below: More goldeneye habitat, a small lake in the forest. It’s early spring and the aspens are just leafing out so their leaves are a lovely pea green color.

Below: A pair of Barrow’s goldeneyes on a small pond.

The same pair:

Below: The same male as above but now by himself—his female was likely off visiting her nest, perhaps to lay an egg. Males associate with the females prior to and during egg-laying but then abandon the wetlands once incubation begins. The females alone raise the kids. Note the male’s spectacular iridescent purple head complete with the diagnostic white crescent near the beak.

The Barrow’s goldeneye may soon be ‘extinct’, but in name only. The American Ornithological Society seems poised to change the names of all North American species with eponymous names (Jerry posted about that here). I have been trying to think of an appropriate new name for Barrow’s goldeneye and it is hard coming up with good names (fun naming contest—suggest your names in the comments). The females are similar in appearance to female common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula), so a name based on the female seems tough. A geographic name is also a challenge since Barrow’s goldeneyes overlap with common goldeneyes in Western North America, and Barrow’s goldeneyes also have a peculiar disjunct distribution—Northwestern North America, Eastern Canada and Iceland (the bird was first known to modern science from Iceland, hence the latin species epithet islandica). Perhaps something like purple-headed goldeneye will do? Or maybe history will prevail and it will be the Icelandic goldeneye.

Below. A very clean and dapper looking male. I love the two tone feet. Barrow’s goldeneyes are one of my favorite birds; they are charismatic and live in hauntingly beautiful habitat. In flight, both goldeneye species make a characteristic loud whistling noise with their wings, giving rise to their nickname ‘whistlers’. It is an evocative sound that I will always associate with the wild north woods.

Below: A goldeneye clutch of eggs inside a nest box. The eggs are greener than those of most other ducks.

Below: A female goldeneye with her brood. 

In goldeneyes, there are two ways that females end up raising the ducklings of other females—brood parasitism, where a female lays eggs in the nest of another female, and adoption after hatching. Both are common, and an important contribution from Eadie’s synthesis paper was the idea that adoption might in some cases be a form of post-hatching brood parasitism. The paper also highlighted the importance of considering the costs and benefits to both the female adopting the ducklings (the recipient) as well as the donor, who is getting her ducklings adopted by the recipient female. It is not always clear whether the donor female or the recipient female is causing the adoption to happen so it is important to consider the consequences to both females and their kids.

At least a couple of different explanations might account for adoption in waterfowl. First, adoption increases the number of ducklings in a brood and there may be safety in numbers—if predation occurs, the risk per individual duckling goes down. In this case the adopting female should be happy to adopt ducklings and increase her brood size, and the donors would also gain this benefit. This cooperative view of adoption dominated the field for a long time, reflected in the fact that amalgamated broods in waterfowl are often called crèches, from the French word for a nursery where babies are cooperatively cared for.  Second, adoption might reflect a form of post-hatching brood parasitism where the donating female benefits by fobbing her chicks off on someone else. Her kids get the benefit of having a parent around but the donor is off the hook for caring for kids and invests less time and effort in breeding that she would otherwise. The cooperation and parasitism hypotheses are not mutually exclusive because both donor and recipient might benefit from adoption. Finally, some have suggested that adoption is not adaptive but a mistake—female goldeneyes are territorial and often fight with each other, and broods get mixed up during fights.

Below: An unusual Canada goose (Branta canadensis) nest on the roof of an old cabin at our study area. One study of Canada geese claimed that parents actually kidnap young from other parents—apparently having additional goslings in the brood is so beneficial that the adults steal kids from each other.

Below: Goldeneye ducks are great for studying adoption for a couple of reasons. Large lakes can have more than one female with ducklings and adoption is common. The ducklings have white cheek patches that are ideal for marking with colored permanent markers to keep track of which broods the ducklings come from. We have lots of colors to use and we only color one cheek (left blue chick is a different brood than right blue cheek). This provides enough combinations so that each adult female on a lake gets her own unique brood color for her ducklings. Then, when a duckling is adopted its cheek color gives it away as an adoptee (it differs in marking from the foster mom’s kids) but we can also know which donor brood (and mom) it came from.

Below: John Eadie giving a duckling its unique brood cheek color (blue left in this case). The colors last for a few weeks and are easily seen with a telescope during brood surveys.

Below. An example of a brood with adopted ducklings. The two photos show the right and left cheeks, respectively. The hen’s own kids are yellow right and she adopted kids with yellow left and green left. We kept track of the adult females with plastic ‘nasal saddles’ attached to the beak; each hen gets a unique color combination. Colored leg bands would be useless for identifying swimming females.

John and I did a brood size manipulation experiment to study both the recipient and donor perspectives of adoption. In other species of waterfowl, researchers noted that adoption often occurs during a period of intensive predation on ducklings, leading to the conclusion that adoption likely functions to reduce the risk of predation per individual duckling, as described above. However, John and I realized that there could be another explanation for the link between predation and adoption. Intensive predation can quickly reduce a female’s brood size well below the number of ducklings she leaves the nest with, changing the benefit she can expect to gain from caring for the brood relative to the costs of staying and caring for them. If the expected costs exceed the benefits, the adaptive response would be for the mother to desert the brood and save her investment for future reproduction. Studies with several birds, and some mammals like bears, provide evidence that adaptive desertion of offspring sometimes occurs.

John and I applied these ideas to adoption and proposed that adoption might be result of adaptive brood desertion. We dubbed this donor-driven explanation for adoption as the ‘ditched duckling hypothesis’ and we predicted that these deserted broods would besmaller broods. Desertion could then lead to adoption in two ways. First, females might desert their brood and the ducklings then find a foster mom on their own. Alternatively, females could invade the territory of another hen, which would invariably result in a fight between the two hens, and during the fight her kids might mix in with the other kids. The sneaky donor is then ‘chased off’ by the territory owner, but her kids now have a foster mom. We tested the adaptive desertion part of hypothesis by experimentally reducing brood sizes at hatch—we took ducklings at hatch from some nests and gave them to other females, either by adding them to another nest box at the same stage or by getting females with young broods to adopt the kids. We left many broods unmanipulated to serve as ‘control’ broods.

Below: The brood size manipulations strongly affected whether a female ditched her ducklings: smaller broods were far more likely to be abandoned than control broods. There also seemed to be a clear threshold size: 100% of the broods smaller than four ducklings were deserted while only 20% of the broods with four or more ducklings were deserted. This graph from our paper shows this key result and compares the sizes of broods where females stayed and where they left. Importantly, we also found a link between desertion and adoption: a few of these deserted broods ended up being adopted. Whether ditched ducklings got adopted depended in part on how many potential foster moms were available on a given lake.

Below: A female with tiny brood of two ducklings. This bird was not part of our experiment but tiny broods like this in our experimental study were invariably deserted by their moms.

Data from John Eadie’s first couple of years of thesis work suggested that adoption might benefit the adopting females—his observational data showed that an individual duckling’s chances of survival to the end of the season was higher in larger broods, as predicted by the safety in numbers idea. However, observational (non-experimental) studies can be misleading because some other hidden factor might actually be causing the pattern. For example, ducklings might survive better in larger broods because they have better mothers: in birds generally, older more experienced mothers often have bigger broods and are better able to care for their kids. Experimentally changing brood size is essential to scramble any correlation between brood size and mother quality, and thus directly assess the effect of brood size itself. When we did this, we found no relation between experimental brood size and duckling survival. In other words, we detected neither a cost nor a benefit to the adopting hen in terms of the survival of the kids.

An additional experimental suggests that there may sometimes be costs to the mothers that adopt ducklings. We did some duckling addition experiments to see if moms would happily adopt kids—they were similar to Jerry’s attempts to get the stray mallard ducklings he encountered adopted by one of the females on Botany Pond. Putting a duckling in a lake near a female with a brood causes the released duckling to begin calling which gets the attention of the mother with the ducklings. She then swims over to check out the duckling. Having the ducklings be the same age as the adopting moms kids turned out to be key. When we released newly hatched ducklings near female who also had newly hatched ducklings they were invariably adopted without fuss—she treated them as she would her own. However, when we tried to introduce smaller ducklings into broods of older ducklings the moms would invariably attack the ducklings and try to kill them (we were able to rescue virtually all these experimental ducklings and get them safely into broods with ducklings of the same age). The discovery that females sometimes aggressively reject foster ducklings suggests that there may be costs to adoption in some contexts but we do not yet understand what these costs are.

Below. A female aggressively chases an introduced duckling away from her brood and the duckling wisely flees. Before our study John assumed that female goldeneyes would readily adopt ducklings so this aggressive behavior came as a real shock. We named the spit of land where we observed this particular chase Epiphany Point—this single observation of female aggression changed the way John thought about adoption in these ducks.

Below. Not wanting to end on a depressing note (parents beating up kids), let’s end with a bluebird of happiness—specifically, a mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides). These bluebirds are very common in study area. This is a male bluebird at his nest in an aspen tree. Aspens often have lots of holes, which serve as nest sites for bluebirds, goldeneyes and lots of other cavity-nesting species as well. Given the abundance of aspen trees, cavity-nesting birds are particularly abundant at our study area.