It might be an exaggeration to say that loons and mallards are the Montagues and Capulets of the bird world, but they’re definitely not friends. According to Walter Piper, director of the Loon Project, which monitors loon behavior in northern Wisconsin, loons will chase away any mallards they see on their turf. So it’s all the more surprising that two loon parents have adopted an orphaned baby mallard duck in Oneida County’s Long Lake, reports Smithsonian.com.
Upon investigation, researchers discovered a nearby loon nest with broken shell remnants, suggesting that the loons’ own chick didn’t survive. Loons are traditionally very doting parents, so instinct likely prompted them to turn their parental impulses toward anything they could find as a replacement. Piper says it’s usually a loon orphan, but these empty nesters must have found the mallard first.
Though loons and mallards have plenty in common, there are several ways in which this oddball family is deviating from the norm. For one, mallards mainly feed on plants and small invertebrates, while loons eat fish. The mallard adoptee has been seen accepting small fish from its mother, but its duck instincts seem to be working, too: It rejects larger fish offered by the male loon. And, as Piper told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, mallard babies don’t usually reap the benefits of two exceedingly attentive parents. Mallard mothers don’t feed their children directly, and mallard fathers don’t really parent at all. The mallard chick is also enjoying sailing around the lake on the backs of its new parents, though at this point it has grown enough to be a pretty heavy burden.
Perhaps the most problematic behavioral difference the mallard duck has exhibited thus far is its lack of instinct when it comes to helping protect the territory from loon intruders. During late summer, single loons hunt for ideal breeding territories and mates. They consider it a good sign if they see a lake with a happy loon couple and a chick, and sometimes they’ll even fight one of the parents so they can take over the family. To prevent this scenario, loon babies will either hide underwater or on the shore when another loon appears overhead, leaving their parents to feign childlessness. The mallard baby, however, basically did the opposite when it spotted another loon above: It swam into the middle of the lake and made a ton of noise. Nothing bad happened right then, but it’s possible that the intruder loon will bookmark the territory and return to usurp the adoptive parents next summer.
By the end of this summer, though, the baby mallard will have mostly grown up, and it’s likely that it will soon figure out that it’s not a loon. When that happens, says Lori Naumann from the Nongame Wildlife Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it will probably search for (and hopefully find) other mallards and assimilate into their habitat and lifestyle. In the meantime, we’ll patiently wait for Disney to turn the story into a heartwarming family film.