As It Happens

'Mom of the year': Photographer captures images of mama duck with 76 babies

Bird experts say it's common for hens to care for other females' ducklings — but this many is 'extraordinary'

July 26, 2018

Brent Cizek captured this photo of a duck leading more than 50 ducklings on Lake Bemidji in Minnesota. (Submitted by Brent Cizek)
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Brent Cizek said he "couldn't have asked for a better photo opportunity" than a lone mama duck on a Minnesota lake with more than 70 ducklings trailing behind her.  6:03

Photographer Brent Cizek said he "couldn't have asked for a better photo opportunity" than a lone mama duck on a Minnesota lake with more than 70 ducklings trailing behind her.

Cizek snapped the stunning images this summer on Lake Bemidji near Duluth. One of his pictures has since been retweeted nearly 1,300 times and featured in the New York Times

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"The photo just makes you question, you know, how is this possible? How did it happen? How is the mom taking care of so many ducks?" the local amateur wildlife photographer told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

"It's hard not to look at her and say OK, you know this is pretty unbelievable. Multiple people are saying, you know, 'Mom of the year.'"

Cizek first spotted the ducks on June 27 and said he counted one hen and at least 56 ducklings. When he went back a few weeks later, she had picked about two dozen more ducklings, bringing the total to approximately 76.

When he returned to snap more images, the mother duck had more than 70 ducklings trailing behind her. (Submitted by Brent Cizek)

It's not uncommon to see between 20 and 30 ducklings trailing behind a single female duck — but more than 70 is "an extraordinary sighting," Yale ornithologist Richard O. Prum told the Times.

But the ducklings, experts say, can't possibly all be hers.

An experienced babysitter 

The duck in question is a common merganser, which lays up to a dozen eggs at a time and often spreads them out in other birds' nests to increase the offsprings' chances of survival, according to the National Audubon Society

But that fact alone doesn't explain the photos, as 76 eggs is still too many for one mama duck to incubate.

A local wildlife manager said the photos most likely depict a "creche" — a sort of duckling daycare, in which an older, more experienced mother duck will take care of the other females' babies.

It's not uncommon for an experienced mother duck like this to watch over ducklings that aren't her own. (Submitted by Brent Cizek)

But this particular creche is exceptionally large, David Rave of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told the Times.

"I've seen creches up to 35 and 50 often, but 70 — that would be a very big creche."

A stroke of luck

Cizek said he didn't expect to snap any photos when we went out on his boat on June 26. It was windy, the waters were choppy and he only brought one lens.

When he came across the mother duck and her crèche, he said he frantically snapped dozens of pictures and prayed that at least one would turn out clear. 

"Sure enough, one photo of the very many actually turned out halfway decent, and here we are," he said.

Cizek has fallen in love with the ducklings, whose progress he's been documenting online. (Submitted by Brent Cizek)

He's since been out on the lake several times to keep an eye on the ducklings and take more photos and videos to share online.

"There's quite a lot of people following along to kind of see their progress and how they're doing," he said. "It's been pretty wonderful."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Brent Cizek produced by Katie Geleff.