For the first five months of her life, wood duck Stella only knew human company. It was no surprise then that when she came to Shedd Aquarium in December 2016, she was at ease with her aquarist caregivers.
During a 30-day observation period in quarantine, however, the 1-pound gray-brown duck with white speckles on her breast and a distinctive white patch around each eye showed a marked preference for one of her caretakers, senior aquarist Kurt Hettiger.
In fact, said fellow quarantine aquarist Christina Biggs, Stella could be “squawky and nippy” with her and coworker Tiffany Adams, but she’d make “adorable turkey gobble sounds” when Kurt cared for her. “It was hilarious,” Christina said, “and Tiffany and I noted it immediately.”
Stella is a rescue who came to Shedd by way of the Moraine Ridge Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Valparaiso, Ind. While still in the egg, she’d been taken from a nest in the wild—a violation of federal law protecting migratory birds—and hatched in someone’s home. Her first human caregivers soon realized how difficult it was to raise a duckling and surrendered her to the rehabilitation center. After she’d grown up, however, Stella could not be reintroduced to the wild. She had imprinted on humans.
Within a few hours of hatching, ducks and other waterfowl imprint on the first moving thing they see—normally their mother. Imprinting is what makes ducklings fall into line behind mom and, later in life, select mates of their own species. Instead, Stella identified with people. And she was completely dependent on them for her survival.
The rehabilitation center contacted several potential permanent homes for the duck, including Shedd. Eve Barrs, a senior aquarist in the At Home on the Great Lakesgallery, says, “We had both ruddy and wood ducks on display in our waterfowl habitat, so when we were approached about our ability to take an imprinted female duck, several managers and I went to meet her to see if she would fit in with the birds we already had.” The duck passed the evaluation with flying colors and soon made a happy landing at Shedd.
The basement-level quarantine area is the first stop for most new arrivals, from corals to sharks to monkeys. (Oceanarium-bound animals go through intake procedures in that part of the aquarium.) The primary purpose of quarantine is to prevent introducing infectious diseases into the established animal collection. First thing, our veterinarians evaluate the animal’s health and prescribe any treatments. During the next 30 or more days, the quarantine aquarists closely tend the new animal and make sure it is eating, disease-free and adjusting well to its new accommodations in preparation for its exit exam and move to its exhibit habitat. About 8,500 animals passed through quarantine last year.
“We had both ruddy and wood ducks on display in our waterfowl habitat, so when we were approached about our ability to take an imprinted female duck, several managers and I went to meet her to see if she would fit in with the birds we already had.”Eve Barrs, senior aquarist
The still-unnamed female wood duck was assigned to a large habitat in quarantine, furnished with an elevated dry area and a pool crisscrossed by branches. Unlike most waterfowl, wood ducks perch and nest in trees, hence their common name. A specific tree, the native Quercus stellata, or post oak, was the inspiration for bird’s house name. Tiffany adds, “She also just seemed like a Stella.”
Kurt, Christina and Tiffany all spent a lot of time with the duck during the day, but Stella was on her own at night—not something she was used to. “Being raised in a household, she had people around her 24/7,” Christina says. “So when we entered her area in the morning, she’d light up and squawk, squawk, squawk. She seemed happy to see people, but at the same time, if it was Tiffany and me, she seemed to express displeasure at having been left alone. She squawked and flapped and was fussy.
“She didn’t do that with Kurt. She even had a different vocalization that she only displayed for him, as if to say, ‘Hello! I’m happy to see you.’”
It’s impossible to know if Kurt resembles someone in the duck’s first “family” whom she may have imprinted on. But it’s clear to everyone in quarantine that Stella’s behavior indicated a strong preference for Kurt. At least once she flew onto his shoulder and sat there briefly, making soft chattering sounds.
“Then one day,” Kurt says, “Tiffany was having a hard time with Stella, getting nipped, and I walked over. Tiffany moved out of the way, I put my hand out, and Stella jumped on it. Then she turned around and looked like she gave Tiffany the stink eye."
“Yeah, she seemed to like me best,” he says matter-of-factly, but he downplays any long-term connection. Meanwhile, Christina and Tiffany love to share the story of this memorable duck’s behavior.
Once Stella cleared quarantine, she joined the four other ducks plus a Blanding's turtle, a bullfrogand a variety of local fishes in the double-wide waterfowl habitat in the Great Lakes gallery, where guests can not only meet their wildlife neighbors but also learn about Shedd’s conservation projects from Lake Superior to Niagara Falls.
Now Stella has company around the clock. She has also received basic husbandry training including tactile desensitization to get her more used to human handling—by anyone on the animal care and animal health teams.
Stella’s friends from quarantine stop by the Great Lakes gallery to check her progress. “I definitely go up and visit her,” says Christina. “I watched her diving and eating algae the other night.”
“I put my hand out, and Stella jumped on it. Then she turned around and looked like she gave Tiffany the stink eye.”Kurt Hettiger, senior aquarist
“The time he spent with her in quarantine probably helped her adjust to Shedd more smoothly. Now that she has a stable permanent home, she is less clingy in general. And Stella is no longer a duckling, so that could have something to do with her independence too.”
As a rescue, Stella is a reminder that our interactions with wildlife can have unintended, and often irreversible, consequences for the animal. You can respect our local fauna and not run afoul of state and federal wildlife protection laws by looking but not touching. If you suspect a wild animal is in trouble, call an animal rescue organization.
Kurt has been up there too, popping in behind the scenes. Eve was present during a recent visit. “She came right over and greeted Kurt, and she allowed him to touch and play with her. But she is pretty agreeable toward many people, so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me.”
It appears Stella has moved on.
Kurt agrees: “She acts toward me like any other person.” During a photo shoot for this blog, Stella did hop onto Kurt’s lap.
Eve says, “Kurt was very important to Stella’s transition when she first arrived at Shedd. She was adjusting to yet another new home after being in a private home and then the wildlife rescue facility—all within her first few months of life.
Now within her spacious habitat with her own species, Stella still shows an interest in human company: our guests, especially young ones. “Because the water level in that habitat is mid-window, adults often pick up their children for an eye-to-eye look at the ducks,” Eve says.
“Stella interacts with our guests through the window, looking at the children and paddling along next to them as they are carried by the exhibit. Sometimes she’ll dabble her bill along the glass. If there is a duck hamming it up at the window, that’s our Stella.”
―Karen Furnweger, web editor