Amateur wildlife photographer Brent Cizek was blown away back in June when he witnessed a female duck in Minnesota leading a brood of 50 ducklings.
Cizek was on a trip to Lake Bemidji, 150 miles northwest of Duluth, and was experiencing a rather uneventful day that didn't warrant anything worth photographing. Spotting the 50 ducklings was a darling discovery, but it was only a primer for the major reveal.
The photographer returned to the lake again later in the month and found that the number of ducklings waddling after their hen had increased to 76.
Cizek immediately started snapping pictures of the phenomena. Yale University ornithologist Richard O. Prum commented on the photo, saying, "It’s an extraordinary sighting."
MAMA MERGANSER! I was able to track down the now famous Lake Bemidji Common Merganser that has an adopted brood of over 76 babies! I love the story that these photos tell.— Brent Cizek (@brentcizekphoto) July 17, 2018
Full gallery: https://t.co/wg8xioJBIG#audubonsociety #minnesota #bemidji #duck pic.twitter.com/c0Jycct4HX
Taking pictures on the choppy water proved to be a challenge. Cizek managed to produce just one usable photograph from his camera roll. But he wondered how the common merganser that is referred to as "Mama" came to lead such a substantial brood.
He told the New York Times:
It kind of compels you just to look and wonder: How?
How did this happen? How is this mom taking care of all of these ducklings? She just looks really proud and stoic in the photo.
75 other mama ducks are laughing their tail feathers off while drinking cocktails and watching Real Housewives....— Darth Earl (@EarlLipphardtJr) July 25, 2018
While such sightings are not uncommon, the number of ducks in a row rarely exceed 20 or 30. So are all the ducklings Mama's? Not at all. The National Audubon Society says that female mergansers can lay up to 12 eggs, but they don't necessarily incubate their own eggs.
Mothers will intentionally lay some or all of their eggs in the nests of other mergansers. Sometimes this is necessary when a mother can't find a suitable nest site. Also, laying eggs in multiple locations increases the chances that at least some offspring will survive.— Brandon Tate (@SilverWolf_47) June 29, 2018
Other female mergansers leave their eggs in other nests to spread out their offspring and increase their chances of survival.
According to Prum, it's impossible for one merganser to incubate all those eggs.
It’s impossible for this individual to have incubated, you know, 50 eggs. That is really too much.
Cizek returns to the lake to document the development of Mama and her brood. And though he's spotted other adult ducks in the mix, all the ducklings follow Mama whenever she splits off from the group.
Everybody is really just amazed. Everybody keeps saying, ‘Mom of the Year.’
Spent another morning with the mergansers. They are growing so fast. They continue to venture further out on their own, but as soon as Mama Merganser starts heading somewhere, they all quickly follow suite. Count is still at 70+. pic.twitter.com/MkIRc0wUnZ— Brent Cizek (@brentcizekphoto) July 23, 2018
Is there anything sweeter in the universe? “Adult ducks can’t tell which birds are theirs, and lost young birds that have already imprinted on their own mothers will instinctively start following another Common Merganser because she looks like mom.”— hanner (@hannahjwaters) July 22, 2018
You're like their surrogate dad, watching to make sure Mama and her brood are all okay. I love it!! Thanks for sharing your great pictures! 😉— Sharklady (@Sharklady57) July 24, 2018
Twitter couldn't get enough of the photo with the long line of cuteness.
It's going to be a sad day for the photographer when the ducks eventually migrate.
Thank you so much! Going to be a sad day when they continue their migration.— Brent Cizek (@brentcizekphoto) July 25, 2018
Do they return to their place of birth?? Perhaps they will have babies there and the story will continue. It's just so sweet! 👏👍🦆😊😍— Sharklady (@Sharklady57) July 25, 2018