Birds of a Feather Haggle Together

Waterfowl are "careful, sophisticated bargainers," negotiating not only how much effort each puts into communal rearing of ducklings, but also profit-sharing, says a new study from the American Naturalist. (Image credit: Courtesy Nils Sundberg)

Birds of a feather certainly flock together, and with one species they also haggle and form cliques and divide tasks. And as with humans, the social system among these odd ducks sometimes breaks down.

A new study reveals for the first time in ducks a phenomenon called “cooperative breeding,” in which multiple parents share such tasks as scanning for predators and feeding young.

The research focused on group parenting among bulky sea ducks called eiders. Hens come to a common rearing area with their young to get to know the other mother ducks.  They socialize, bargain and even fight with one another until they sort themselves into cliques of two, three or four.

"The socializing during the period prior to group formation is devoted to the searching for and negotiating with a suitable partner," explained study team leader Markus Öst of the University of Helsinki.

Occasionally, the coalition may break up after a few days if partners find they are  ill-suited for one another, the researchers write in the January issue of the American Naturalist magazine.

The suitably partnered hens work together to keep the ducklings warm, well fed and protected against predators, making sure that everything is, well, ducky.

"Waterfowl have a reputation as being none-too-bright, but we think they are careful, sophisticated bargainers," Öst said.

Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.