Bird Behavior

Cover of Fly with Me by Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Jason Stemple

I am an avid birdwatcher. Have been since I was a child. When one watches birds for a lifetime, one gets very attuned to their behaviors. Behavior can even be an identifier at times. How a bird flies, eats, sings, etc. can separate it from other similar species. Finches and woodpeckers have a distinctive dip in their flight path that allows me to identify them from just a flying silhouette. There is a set of nearly identical flycatchers that can only be differentiated by their song.

Bird behaviors are fun to observe. In Costa Rica, I saw the mating dance of some manakins—those often seen dancing on YouTube. They’re just as funny without the background music. I watched a green-backed heron fishing with a berry, dropping it in the water and watching for fish to come see the disturbance. Tool using!

But what’s especially entertaining (to me, anyway) is when I see birds acting out of character.

Yesterday, my wife and I took a hike at the Woodlake Nature Center. Largely thanks to Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis is a great city for metro birdwatching. Woodlake, unsurprisingly, is a nice hike around a wooded lake. Spring is an excellent time for waterfowl in Minnesota, when the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes translates to the Land of Ten Thousand Spots for Migrating Ducks to Land. We expected to see some ducks and we did. There were a number of Hooded Mergansers, one mated pair of Common Mergansers, some Wood Ducks, and numerous Mallards, the pigeon of urban ducks.

Mergansers are diving ducks, going underwater for long lengths of time to catch fish. Mallards are dabbling ducks, digging through the muck in shallower waters for food. If you’ve ever seen a pond filled with just duck butts, those are dabbling ducks flipping upside down to eat.

That’s the setup. So, the mated pair of Common Mergansers were cruising through the middle of the small lake, diving occasionally to hunt. As often happens, they got a little separataed; they often surface far from where they dove. Apparently, a drake Mallard saw this as an opportunity. Leaving the shallows, this intrepid fellow swam to the middle of the lake, drawing near to the female merganser. Ducks are notoriously horny creatures, and Mallards possibly more than most, so I think we know what his intention was. It’s spring, after all. A time when a young man’s fancy turns to duck sex.

Anyway, the female merganser dives, possibly to escape the mallard, or more likely just continuing to hunt. The mallard, seeing this, dives as well!

If you’re not a birder, you might not know how weird this is. Mallards don’t dive. Not here anyway. There are some populations recorded having learned the behavior from diving ducks, but there’s no reason for them to learn it in Minnesota. If one lake doesn’t have a good dabbling area, there’s another one right next door.

So, the mallard dives. A merganser’s dive usually lasts about thirty seconds, but they can stay underwater up to two minutes if need be. The mallard lasted about three seconds underwater. He surfaced, shook his feathers and tried again. He didn’t last much longer. But when the merganser female came up for air, he swam toward her, apparently convinced at least in his own mind that he’d convinced her of his diving acumen and merganser-ness.

But by this time, the male merganser had spotted the unwanted (at least to him; the female hadn’t shown she’d even noticed the mallard yet) attention his mate was getting. He swam over. Though the mallard was bigger than the mallard, he moved off, not seeking a confrontation. He stuck around for a little, explaining to the merganser, I thought, that a lot of mallards live in thruples, and hey, don’t be a prude, the three of us could have a really good time.

The mergansers were not convinced, and the mallard moved off, leaving me laughing on the shore.