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What's Behind The Train Of Ducks Photo


Some animals have unusual and even cruel methods of child-rearing. Cuckoos deceive other birds into raising their young by sneaking their eggs into other birds' nests. Sloth bears and rats are known to eat their young. But a photo that's circulating big time on the Internet reminds us that there are some heartwarming moments in nature. About a month ago photographer Brent Cizek was on Lake Bemidji in Minnesota and stumbled across a mother duck leading a long line of ducklings - 76 of them by his count. People are now referring to that lead duck lovingly as mom of the year. To find out what's going on with this train of ducks, we reached out to Dave Rave. He's a wildlife manager who oversees the Bemidji region for Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources.


DAVE RAVE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Describe that photo a little bit.

RAVE: So the photo shows an adult female - common merganser. And there are several different types of mergansers. And the photo shows a big, long line of ducklings following the female. What's really interesting is if you look close I believe the first two ducklings are actually riding on the back of the female.

MONTAGNE: (Laughing).

RAVE: It kind of looks like a train with all the cars lined up behind them.

MONTAGNE: It looks like she's pulling them.

RAVE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Now I'm presuming of course these babies can't all be hers, so what is happening in the photo?

RAVE: So with mergansers, they do a thing that's called creching. And a creche is a group of ducklings that don't necessarily all belong to the duck that's with them. So a single mother takes the ducklings from a bunch of other ducks that have hatched out ducks and she raises all of the ducklings by herself.

MONTAGNE: I mean, creche is often thought of as, like, kind of a kindergarten thing or a daycare center thing. But it's not quite that, is it?

RAVE: It's not quite that with the mergansers. It's more of all the mergansers on a particular lake are pretty much related.

MONTAGNE: Are you saying then that the female duck is like the grandmother?

RAVE: She's either the grandmother or a great-aunt or something along those lines. And so she takes over for the youngest of the birds that has young that year. She takes all of those ducks and she raises them up. And, you know, this makes sense because she's been around for quite a few years. She knows the area. She knows where the food is. She knows where to bring them up on shore. She knows what predators are - to be aware of. So it works out that way that she's the best one for raising that brood that year.

MONTAGNE: Well, is it normal though for one creche mother to have, like, something like 76 ducks? The picture is astonishing. And I highly recommend - anybody who can - just go to a computer and look it up. All you have to do is say, lot of ducklings.

RAVE: Mr. Cizek's photo is unbelievable. It's really beautiful. And I know I have never seen a creche that big. I've seen them up to 30 or 40 birds, but never that big.

MONTAGNE: Are they going to be there. Are they - have we missed them?

RAVE: No, no. They're still out there. They're still swimming around. Eventually the female, the creche mother, will leave them. But they'll be just about ready to fly by then. And she's taught them how - where to go to find fish and how to eat, so everything will be good. But they're still out there. I drove by the lake earlier today and they're still there.

MONTAGNE: OK. This could become a real tourist site.

RAVE: It sure could.

MONTAGNE: Dave Rave is a wildlife manager with Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. Thanks very much.

RAVE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.