A RAFT OF FISH-EATING DUCKS
They are called a "raft" of mergansers. It is because they are gregarious ducks and fish in a pack, like wolves do. They like being crowded by kin and kind.
This morning a flock, or raft, in semi-residence here at the lake, arrived in a noisy flutter of wings and cackling. One of them had caught a small fish (I presume it was one of this year's crop of perch or bass, one about five inches long) and the others wanted dibs. And the lucky angler didn't want to give up its catch. Or hers, I think, for the females outnumber the males about three to one.
The ducks dive together and sweep the lake depths almost as a net would. There is not much of an interval between birds, or among them. And while each is feeding singly, they are fishing all together. It is a mass cooperative/competitive effort.
The one who got the fish now had to try to keep it away from the pack of robbers. And because (I surmise here) the fish has to be flipped around in the duck's beak so that it can be swallowed head first (those spinyray fins, you know), or else it will lodge in the duck's throat and kill it—a long death by choking or starvation—the duck is very careful to do it just right, and this takes time.
The fish is still alive, doomed to be swallowed while still living, and often escapes, however briefly, for the duck will quickly dive again and almost always recaptures it. A bad miss, though, and the companionate ducks will seize it. All mergansers know this and participate in the sport, or game. And what they do is try to steal their buddy's meal. First one does, then all the others. Few refuse to join in.
There is a great flapping of wings and skittering around on the surface. Picture two dozen ducks all engaged in the same act at the same time. It is a true commotion. And when the poor (poor-poor) fish gets swallowed, down the hatch, the game is declared over.
The common merganser flock returns to its cooperative activity, diving together, or nearly together, swimming at their collective depths as a team, sweeping the lake just off the bottom, all hunting for a solitary breakfast. But together. Always together.
Me, I'll take Cheerios, and I do.
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