There’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.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons / Calibas