Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Pyramid Scheme

Barrow's Goldeneye ducklings (c) John Ashley
14 five-day-old Barrow's Goldeneye ducklings
Old friends Paul and Lisa have a poster on a bathroom wall in their Missoula home. It's an old black and white that shows twelve kids sitting on a bench in a baseball dugout. It's called, "The Dirty Dozen." That photo immediately pops into my head whenever I look at this duckling image.

Except, there's 14 ducklings on this log. A single Barrow's Goldeneye hen lays 6-12 eggs, so 14 chicks might appear to be unusual, but something else is going on with this brood. Look at that guy on the bottom of the pyramid. He's twice as large as the rest of the ducklings.

"The Dirty Dozen" poster
Goldeneye hens are very protective mothers, and they establish territories around a lake where they don't allow other Goldeneye families trespass. But when two hens meet at their borders, mayhem often follows. As the moms battle each other, all of the ducklings race around trying to figure out where to go. Inevitably, some of the young get mixed up when the hens finally separate. Some scheming hens will go so far as to steal other hens' ducklings, while other times they will try to kill them. But sometimes one hen will just peacefully end up with all or most of several broods.

And that's how hens can end up with a brood of ducklings of different sizes/ages.

Goldeneye hens also practice nest parasitism, when they lay extra eggs in another hen's nest. Hens will incubate a few extra eggs, but she'll abandon the nest if too many extra eggs accumulate. In this way, hens can also end up with more than 12 same-aged chicks.

This year we have a brood of 14 chicks in the Goldeneye territory that we happen to live adjacent to. Last year, we watched a hen with 30 chicks in tow. And since Goldeneyes tend to nest in the same area where they were born, most of these females should be somewhat related anyway. Haven't we all at some point believed that we could do a better job of raising our cousins kids?