Steamer ducks, consisting of four species of waterfowl, are pretty odd animals. They are unusual for ducks in several ways, including the fact that they weigh many times more than most ducks and are largely incapable of flight, with the only species capable of flight being the appropriately named “flying steamer duck” (Tachyeres patachonicus). Unlike other animals in our Creature Feature category, however, these are particularly notable for their violent tendencies, facilitated by bony knobs on their wings.
Steamer ducks are much more massive than most waterfowl, the largest species, the Fuegan steamer duck (Tachyeres pteneres), weighs more than 5kg! Male steamer ducks are known for their outbursts of fighting during the mating season, where males bite and bash each other silly to protect territories and win the favor of females. Sometimes, even if another male isn’t present, other waterfowl species may become the unlucky targets of a male steamer duck’s rage.
If you will forgive the extended quotation, I believe this account from Nuechterlein and Storer of a Falkland steamer duck (Tachyeres brachypterus) assaulting a red shoveler (Anas platalea) is illustrative of the incredible violence these birds are capable of:
On 11 November, Storer found two fresh carcasses of female Red Shovelers on the southern shore of Laguna de la Nevada… Then, on 25 November, at a nearby lake named Laguna Blanchillo, Nuechterlein observed a male steamer-duck catch and kill a molting adult shoveler. In this attack, which lasted over 3.5 min, the steamer-duck grabbed the shoveler by the neck and pounded its body with his wing knobs… At intervals, the male steamer-duck pulled the shoveler beneath the surface, then raised it up again and renewed the wing-beating. After approximately 2 min, the male steamer-duck was distracted by [a] female and displayed with her. Within 30 s, he returned to the shoveler, grabbed it by the neck, and again beat it another 15-20 times with its wings. He then released the limp body of the shoveler, pecked at it, and released it again. Turning to the female, he joined her in calling repeatedly while she stretched. A full minute later, after the steamer-ducks had left, the shoveler raised its head and began struggling toward shore… The crippled shoveler eventually reached shore, where it died 15 min later. Examination of the specimen disclosed several broken bones, hemorrhages in the lower neck region, and massive internal bleeding at the base of the right leg.
Nature red in tooth, claw, bill, and bony knuckle pads. If nothing else, this account serves to illustrate how absolutely terrifying waterfowl can be. Next month we will look at one more horribly awesome bird in the order Anseriformes. Hopefully the steamer duck can bring some perspective to the age-old (ok, 3 year old) question of whether one horse-sized duck would win against 100 duck-sized horses. For what it’s worth, my money is on the duck.