The Duck You Definitely Don’t Want To Mess With

“Don’t let it worry ya, Skipper. I’m just a crazy, darn fool duck.” —Daffy Duck

In A Nutshell

Taking a trip to Chile or Argentina? Better stay away from the water. South America is home to the steamer duck, one of the nastiest birds on the planet. Armed with bony knobs and bad tempers, these ducks will take on all comers . . . and sometimes they go hunting for helpless victims.

The Whole Bushel

It’s safe to say that ducks are probably the most famous of all aquatic birds. Perhaps it’s because they look so goofy as they waddle on land, or maybe it’s because they’re so graceful as they glide across the water. Or maybe it’s Disney’s fault. Whatever the reason, ducks are some of the most beloved birds on the planet, and everybody enjoys visiting their local duck ponds and tossing scraps of bread to hungry waterfowl.

Well, everybody except people who live in Argentina and Chile. They’re probably too terrified to get anywhere close to the water, much less feed a duck. And who can blame them? After all, South America is home to the notorious steamer duck, a blood-crazed bird that’d beat Huey, Dewey, and Louie to death without ever blinking an eye.

Steamer ducks are some of the most aggressive animals on the planet. They’re fighters, not lovers, so if a stupid bird gets too close, the steamer goes into mixed martial arts mode. And that’s bad news because these ducks are big—really big. Your average-size steamer weighs about 4.5 kilograms (10 lb), has super-thick skin, and a huge neck and head. In fact, they’re four different species of steamer ducks, and three of them are so big they can’t even fly. (The fourth flies only rarely.)

Battles between male steamer ducks are quite a spectacle. If a guy spies a rival on his turf, or if he wants to impress a lady friend with his muscles, he’ll start a fight in one of two ways. He’ll either rush across the water, flapping his wings and churning water like a steamboat (thus the name), or he’ll go into submarine mode. These birds are crafty devils, and they sometimes dive under the water and sneak up on their target, with only the top of their heads and tail feathers showing.

When the battle begins, males go for the neck and hold on tight. Once they’ve got a good headlock, they pull out their secret weapons. All steamer ducks come equipped with bony, keratinized knobs on their wings. They’re essentially the wildlife version of brass knuckles. While he’s hanging onto his opponent’s throat, the steamer starts thrashing and bashing. Sometimes, the ducks will drag each other under the water, pop back up a few seconds later, and keep on fighting.

These battles can go on for up to 20 minutes. That’s longer than most UFC fights.

What’s really scary is steamer ducks don’t just fight other steamer ducks. They’ll attack anything that moves. (Yes, puny human, that means you.) Even scarier, they often beat other animals to death without any provocation whatsoever. Why? To show other ducks they mean business. That’s right. Steamers beat up other birds to make an example out of them. Sometimes they’ll even sneak up on grebes and coots and mess them up just to send a message.

Needless to say, steamer ducks aren’t very popular. When other birds (or people for that matter) see them coming, they take off running. And since there aren’t many predators big enough to pose a threat, it looks like the steamer duck will be ruling the roost for quite some time. All hail the steamer duck!

Show Me The Proof

Wired.com: Absurd Creature of the Week: The Vicious Duck That Beats the Crap Out of Anything That Moves
Science Blogs: Attack of the flying steamer ducks