Dr. Walter Piper has devoted his life’s work to studying loons on the lakes of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, but in his 27 years of studying the bird, he never has seen what one of his interns observed this past June.
Research assistant, Elaina Lomery, spotted a chick with a pair of mating loons, but she noticed that their baby chick looked a lot like a baby mallard duck. That seemed highly unlikely as the two species are natural enemies, but a closer look confirmed it. The loons had adopted an orphaned duckling.
They couldn’t believe it. Dr. Piper asked naturalist and photographer Linda Grenzer to take photos of the unusual family. She not only caught sight of the duckling riding on the male loon’s back, but she also caught the mother feeding the duck a fish – mallards don’t naturally eat fish, they forage plants and invertebrates in shallow water.
She also captured the duckling diving underwater like loons do. Again Mallards don’t dive underwater like eider ducks or loons, but rather dunk their heads underwater.
Piper believes the unusual family was formed because they all needed each other badly. The duckling, because he lost his parents, and the loons, because they lost their chick.
The scientists continued to document what the pair was up to on The Loon Project. On July 15, Piper wrote that “the loon pair and mallard duckling remain a close-knit family,” and by July 23 he said the mallard was thriving and nearly full-grown, his heavy frame almost submerging his adoptive father’s back.
“This is a completely novel experience that this mallard duck is having, and who would know that it would be able to adapt to getting food by grabbing it out of the bill of its parents, and for that matter, standing on the back of its parents,” Piper said.
And although the duckling has his adoptive parents love, Piper notes that “mallards and loons are not friends. They’re very different and don’t cross paths that much.” He noted loons have even been known to kill ducklings, making this even more unusual. “To have loons adopt and care so much for this duckling is touching and poignant and bizarre,” Piper said.
Kare 11 did a follow up story as to what happened to the duck after the summer.
Although “bizarre”, such adoptions are not unheard of. Something similar was spotted in Canada back in 2016 when a pair of common loons adopted a goldeneye duck. Nevertheless, this duckling adoption is extremely rare.