We’ve all seen momma ducks with 20 to 30 ducklings trailing behind her, but have you seen one with over 70 offspring in her care?
If you haven’t, meet “Mama Merganser,” the super duck mom caring for 76 ducklings!
One windy afternoon on July 16, 2018, wildlife photographer Brent Cizek headed for a scouting excursion on Lake Bemidji, Minnesota, with just one camera and one lens with him.
He had initially intended to capture a photo of a mallard he had seen the day before, but he didn’t expect to snap something far more special.
As he motored toward the boat slip, Brent spotted something in the river: a female Common Merganser surrounded by over 50 ducklings. As he watched, the little mergansers formed a line behind their mom and began swimming away.
The scene was too remarkable to pass up, so Brent got into action.
“I probably shot 50 pictures, and I was just praying that one was going to turn out sharp because the waves were so strong it was nearly impossible to even keep them in the frame,” he recalled at the time.
Making things more complicated was that he had to alternate between maneuvering his trolling motor and snapping photos with his camera. Luckily for him, just one picture turned out.
At home, Brent counted at least 50 ducklings in the photo. But during subsequent visits to the lake, he saw as many as 76 paddling behind Mama Merganser.
50 and 76 ducklings are definitely on the high-end, but large groups like this are actually pretty common, according to Kenn Kaufman, field editor for Audubon.
Female ducks have an interesting habit of leaving a few of their eggs in the nests of other ducks. They will have a nest of their own but will make their way over to another nest or two to lay a few eggs there.
Most of the time, mother ducks will drop off their eggs in the nests of other ducks of the same species, but sometimes they’re also known to lay their eggs in the nests of other duck species.
There’s no clear explanation behind this practice, but experts think it has to do with preservation. For example, in case a duck’s own nest is destroyed, she will still have more offspring being safely incubated in other nests.
Not putting all their eggs in one basket is sort of a reproductive insurance policy for these ducks.
This behavior doesn’t completely explain what Brent captured, though, because ducks can only successfully incubate a limited number of eggs. Female ducks lay about a dozen eggs and can only warm up to 20. Having more than that will be too much for them to handle.
Their theory is that this particular merganser picked up several dozen ducklings that strayed away from their mothers.
Adult ducks can’t identify which birds are theirs, and the ducklings that have already imprinted on their biological mothers will start to follow another Common Merganser who looks like mom.
Another plausible theory is that the ducklings are part of a crèche, wherein female birds entrust their newborns into the care of an older and wiser female.
This elder usually has broad experience in raising young and doesn’t mind taking a few hatchlings under her wing while their parents go off to do what adult birds typically do.
According to David Rave, an area wildlife manager overseeing the Bemidji region for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, several species of birds—including common mergansers—use this system.
This super duck mom will tend to these young birds for a couple more weeks before they are big enough to defend themselves.
They will eventually leave the group, and the females will one day potentially adopted a brood of ducklings of their own.
Luckily for this wildlife photographer, he was able to capture this remarkable scene for the rest of the world to see!
Here’s a compilation of raw videos that Brent Cizek took of Mama Merganser and her adorable ducklings.