Imprinting. It’s what ducks do. Normally, they imprint on another duck. But not always.
In our world of ducks (and other animals) we have only had one, Maggie, imprinting on a ‘non-duck’, e.g. me, Piddlewick. It is not something we would generally choose, through experience, but sometimes needs must.
But what is imprinting? “Imprinting is, (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica) in psychobiology, a form of learning in which a very young animal fixes its attention on the first object with which it has visual, auditory, or tactile experience and thereafter follows that object. In nature the object is almost invariably a parent.”
In other words, the baby thinks what it more or less first sees is ‘Mom’.
Imprinting has been particularly studied in birds, especially chickens, geese and ducks. But, it is known to happen in other species, including mammals, such as us humans (where it is known as bonding).
In the case of ducks, when they hatch, they are looking for ‘Mom’. That is, the one who will protect them. If separated from their actual mom, they will look to another to be that lead role. This easily can be humans, but has also be known to be dogs, even the odd cat!
A Mom, whether in the wild or domestic, is anticipated to teach some necessities. Like in human life, children learn words and what they mean. Ducks learn sounds and what those mean. They could be a call to ‘found food, come eat’, ‘follow me’, or ‘danger!’.
The trouble is, as a human mom to a duck, these sounds are not naturally inherent.
Over the time with Maggie, and spent with other ducks I have learned many duck sounds and what they mean. (Mallards actually have a language of 250 sounds.) They in turn have learnt the meaning of certain sounds I make. And like dogs, you can teach them to understand certain commands. This is especially helpful when you wish ducks to go to bed for the night (Great YouTube video on this from Gold Shaw Farm).
Now imprinting is really cute. I mean really, really cute. Having this tennis sized ball of fluff duckling follow you as fast as its little legs will run, peep at you and snuggle into your shoulder… what’s not to love? Except, like human children, they require you to be their parent until the grow up and leave the nest (as it were).
Yes, this is quicker than in the human world, but it still takes time. If you wish to have or find yourself deciding on letting a duck imprint, be aware you are looking at at least a year before you will have some form of independence. They are very similar to having children in their attention needs.
As ducklings, they are completely dependent on you, just like a baby. And will take as much time and attention as a baby, And need cleaning up after, just like a baby. You can even diaper your duck.
Ducks reach adolescence at around 2 months old (boy ducks voices actually change, that’s one of the first ways you can determine the sex of your duck). Then as they become proper teenagers, they start to get fashion orientated and grow their respective plumage. That is, they start to look like the duck breed they are from.
Like most teenagers they would rather not be seen with their parents, though no surprise they still need you for home and food. If you have other ducks they will start to want to hang out with them.
If your other ducks are not imprinted, you may find that your imprinted duck gets bullied. After all, a a non-duck you couldn’t teach them all the proper duck skills. Maggie really was disliked by our other, older, ducks. Because of this she stayed closer to us for longer. But I still gained back a modicum of freedom when she reached 4 months old and wanted to test her wings, both literally and figuratively.
Regarding imprinting and independence, much depends on if you have other ducks. Ducks, like all birds, are flock animals. They need to be with others. If you have a single imprinted duck, you can anticipate that you are and will always be their flock. They will not want to be without you, at any time. (You’ve probably heard of parrots going mad when left alone or given enough attention?)
The flock does not always have to be ducks. Our Maggie flocked with us and our dog and cat when she was growing up. But we only gained real independence from her when she had a flock of other ducks to hang out with.
Imprinting is on my mind because I made the decision this past weekend to save one of Maggie’s newly hatched ducklings. She was suffering from niacin deficiency. By choosing to take her under my wing (euphemism) I knew that, if she lived, she would end up imprinting on me.
And so, say hello to Gabby. She is a talkative duckling, so we suspect a girl (yes, when young, the girls do talk more. It swaps a bit as they get older.) She gains in strength and size each day. And, yes, she has imprinted on me. I now have only one hand free generally or really, really have to watch where I step.