Icy Romance

During this arctic grip on Burlington, when almost anything outside seems to groan or crunch or crack, when the cold itself seems evil, a drama begins each morning in frigid waters off Perkin’s Pier. In Lake Champlain, Common Goldeneyes are getting hot.

These perky ducks bob and dive, lunge and flutter, cavort and compete. Nearly four months before our woods will glow with a rainbow of migrating songbirds, Common Goldeneyes are already courting – proof that icy water doesn’t necessarily put a chill on carnal desire.

The male does most of the strutting and gyrating. One of his signature moves is the “head-throw-kick.” While paddling near females, he’ll thrust his head forward for a moment, then jerk it backwards so that his nape touches his rump and his bill points skyward. Finally, he utters a weird grating call and whips his head forward while kicking water outward with his feet.

This is a genuine turn-on for female goldeneyes.

But this odd winter courtship initiates a fickle relationship. We tend to think that these mating rituals produce a faithful pair that goes on to raise a brood together in spring. But ducks aren’t so faithful.

Many duck species are indeed monogamous. Goldeneye pairs now forming will migrate north together in March toward breeding areas across Canada and Alaska. But he’s a rambler. After she lays eggs, the goldeneye male abandons his mate. This is true for most duck species. The bond they established back in those icy waters breaks in spring. He flies off to who knows where. She stays put to raise the young. Sometimes females and their broods of precocial ducklings will join into larger flocks, a gathering of single moms biologists call “amalgamation.”

The males won’t fly off for some spring fling. Far from it. For many duck species, this becomes a long-distance relationship (only lacking email and Skype). Eventually, he’ll come flying back, but not to the breeding grounds. The pair reunites later, where they began, when they return to wintering site like this one off the Burlington waterfront.

I can’t be certain that Common Goldeneyes, with all that splashing and whiplashing, are renewing their vows. Research on this particular species is sparse on the question. But it’s probably a safe assumption. Pair formation, separation and winter reunification are well established among ducks, including the common goldeneye’s closest relative, Barrow’s Goldeneye.

So why does she take him back? The female may simply be choosing to go with what she knows. Perhaps he had staked claim to prime breeding territory up north. Maybe she’d rather not risk ending up with a lower-quality male or even no male at all. A research team based in British Columbia, where Harlequin Ducks breed and spend the winter, reported that pairs reunite even if they failed to fledge young in their earlier breeding attempts. That would suggest reunification offers clear benefits, with males and females hedging against the risks and costs inherent in finding a new mate.

Whatever the case, the scene at the Burlington waterfront, besides offering us a cheap thrill, suggests that at least among ducks romance can be, well, cold and calculating.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a consulting naturalist and author who teaches writing in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs. 

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