Mixed-Up, Adopted Ducks Try to Mate With the Wrong Species

By Joseph Calamia | May 20, 2010 5:46 pm

canvasbackThere’s that old saying about the futility of a bird and a fish falling in love. Apparently, two birds might not fair any better: Unlucky ducks from two different species are falling for the wrong women.

Actually, matchmaker Michael D. Sorenson of Boston University set them up at birth. In a foreign exchange program of sorts, his team took sixteen young male redheads (Aythya Americana) and sixteen young male canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria) and switched their homes, allowing canvasbacks to raise redhead ducklings and vice versa.

Sorenson wanted to study imprinting—when a young bird sees its caretaker and recognizes her as its mother. Determining what Mom looks like turns out to be important later in a bird’s life, as the duck uses its mother’s image to pick out mates.

But, as anyone who knows the origins of the word “cuckold” can attest, even when scientists aren’t mucking about in the nests some birds don’t raise their own offspring. Some deadbeat ducks–including the redheads–sneak their eggs into another species’ nest, a way to shove off parenting responsibilities. Sorenson wanted to find out if such an abandoned bird could imprint the wrong mother, and later pick the wrong mates.

The resulting romantic comedy, published online today in The Proceedings of the Royal Society, showed his team that the ducks could, indeed, pick the wrong lover. Redhead males raised with canvasbacks fell hard for canvasback females, and canvasbacks raised with redheads wanted only redheads.

Though the confused ducks tried with gusto to catch the beady eyes of their infatuations, the unrequited lovers barely got a ruffled feather in response.

Related content:
The Loom: Kinkiness, Thy Name Is Duck
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Ballistic penises and corkscrew vaginas – the sexual battles of ducks
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Infants match human words to human faces and monkey calls to monkey faces (but not quacks to duck faces)
80Beats: Mockingbird to Annoying Human: “Hey, I Know You”

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Calibas

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Sex & Mating
  • http://www.j2fi.net/ Jason

    The poor ducks … they must be so frustrated.

    That said, what is the long-term benefit of this kind of study? This seems to be some sort of sick joke perpetrated by someone in the name of science. We can’t use this to benefit our species and, unless we start monitoring the eggs found in nests around the world, we can’t use this to prevent other animals from this sort of situation.

  • http://joshuacolin.com Joshua

    Wow, I feel terrible for those ducks. I agree with Jason, what exactly is the point? The concept of imprinting is fairly well-established and this doesn’t really tell us anything about the biology of that process. All it does is to confirm, at the expense of some unfortunate ducks, things that I think we already know. I suppose it’s sort of useful in establishing the extreme extent to which imprinting can impact behavior but I don’t know if it’s worth it.

    I hope you find love, duckies!

  • Illa Depugh

    loooked including ray j wem he / she jus put this colours on

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