Imprinters’ union

I’m not taking to the ducks, and I think it’s because the ducks aren’t taking to me.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t get ducks for unconditional love. I don’t want to bond with my livestock. But I want them to be able to cohabit comfortably with us for the nine weeks they’ll be here, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

I’ve read my Konrad Lorenz, and I should have known.

Lorenz did a series of experiments in the 1930s with graylag geese in which he found that the goslings would latch onto whatever moving object they were in closest proximity to on their first day of life – specifically, in hours 13-17.

Under normal circumstances, that moving object is, of course, mother goose. In Lorenz’s experiments, it was Lorenz, and he went down in history as the guy who couldn’t go anywhere without a gaggle of goslings waddling in his wake.

Lorenz called it “imprinting,” and he found that it’s very strong in geese. Also ducks.

And so there’s a problem inherent in raising ducklings in the absence of their mother. They’re going to imprint on something. But what?

Our ducks were hatched at the Murray McMurray hatchery, in Webster City, Iowa. I haven’t seen their operation, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t consist of a bunch of straw-lined brooder boxes with mother ducks hatching their clutches. It’s undoubtedly row upon row of incubators that are filled with fertile eggs, kept at the right temperature, rotated at regular intervals.

In that critical first day of life, the Murray McMurray ducks don’t see a grown-up duck. They probably don’t spend quality time with a human, either. They’re scooped up, put in a special box, and shipped posthaste to Cape Cod Feed and Supply, where we buy them.

In the absence of a duck or a person, ducklings will, I’m given to understand, imprint on each other. I believe that’s what’s happened here.

Remember the farmhouse scene from Take the Money and Run? The one where Woody Allen and his five fellow prison escapees try and convince the sheriff that they’re cousins? They shuffle through the house together to disguise the fact that they’re connected with chains, and the sheriff thinks they’re just a close family.

That’s exactly how the ducks move. Whatever they do, they all do together. If one drinks, they all drink. If one eats, they all eat. If one walks, they all shuffle together, the picture of a close family.

But I’m not finding any Musketeer charm in their all-for-one ethos. The tie that binds them doesn’t seem to be honor or loyalty or even whatever it is that animals experience as love. It’s fear.

From the day we got them, they ran away from anything that came near them. When we tried to introduce a surrogate mother in the form of a chicken, the ducklings were having none of it; it was past hour 17, and too late. Whenever we reached into the brooder to give them food or water, the six of them ran peeping into a corner, apparently terrified. When we moved them into the hoophouse, they ran under the bench when they saw us coming.

It makes perfect sense that a young, vulnerable, motherless animal should be fearful. It took the chickens a while to figure out that, not only were we not a threat, we were the source of everything good in their lives. But they did.

The ducks, though, aren’t making any progress in that direction. We’ve moved them into the turkey pen, which we retrofitted for them with a pool, a sheltered area under the treehouse, and a carpeted ramp from the treehouse to the ground (so they don’t slip on their way down). As soon as humans approach the pen, the ducks go on the alert, and they run away as soon as anyone comes within about five feet.

I’ve been a duck owner for a little under three weeks now, so it’s probably a little early to have an opinion about the management of the species, but I’m beginning to think ducks should be raised by their mothers.

There’s not a lot of literature out there on the relative strength of the imprinting impulse in different kinds of poultry, but what there is confirms my suspicion that it’s much weaker in chickens than in ducks, and that, I think, makes chickens much better suited to domestication. (Of course, it’s possible that chickens were once strong imprinters, and the impulse has been domesticated out of them.) If a bird is inclined to imprint, a bird owner should give it something appropriate to imprint on.

Unless you’re Konrad Lorenz, explicating bird behavior for the greater good, you certainly don’t want ducks imprinting on you. It’s cute for about seven seconds, until you have to run out for groceries.

If you leave them to imprint on each other, I think you can’t help but end up with a flock that’s dysfunctional in some way. Imprinting imparts a survival advantage. The ducklings that stick close to their mothers are protected from predators and taught how to go about their duck business. If the ducklings learn only from each other, and grow up in the absence of a responsible authority figure, it’s going to end in crime, drugs, and heartbreak.

I don’t think our ducklings are unhappy, at least when they’re alone. They eat, drink, nap, and paddle in their pool. Because we keep them fed, sheltered, and protected, there’s very little they have to learn to do on their own. But I can’t help thinking that their universe is unnaturally circumscribed, that they would lead more fulfilling lives if they weren’t afraid of everything that isn’t a duck.

“But they each have five close friends,” my mother pointed out when I told her this. “And they can’t imagine a better life.”

True, and how many among us can say the same? Even so, I think I prefer my livestock unimprintable.

12 people are having a conversation about “Imprinters’ union

  1. Sure they have each other as friends. But perhaps you forgot that the 2 people walking behind them with the camera also built the cone of silence. I think they’ve been exploring your property and connecting the dots. Keep walkin’ little ones (but you may want to pick up the pace…)

  2. My 3 ducks were hatched on a smallholding, though I’m not sure whether they hatched in an incubator or by mum. I think many duck breeders, even on a small scale use incubators as ducks make notoriously poor mothers, with an tendency to get bored and lose interest. (I have 3 children under 12. Tempting thought…) Or move a dozen ducklings over a main road or take them out in a thunderstorm.

    Mine are 18 months old and still do not have the same response as the chickens. As soon as I go out of my back door the hens are waiting by their fence in the hope I may have food. If I go near the ducks they run about in minor panic. To be fair, they’re probably a bit calmer than they used to be and do sometimes seem to remember that I’m the large biped that drops tasty green stuff over the fence.

    I don’t know whether it’s the imprinting or whether they’re just dim, but they don’t seem to make the same associations as the hens. I’m not sure how imprinting on a big mother duck rather than a small sibling duck would stop the “OMG!” mentality, so I’m inclined to go with lack of brain…

  3. Kim Graves says:

    Tamar, Have you considered keeping this batch as breading stock? The second generation will have the first to imprint on and then you can slaughter the first. In addition, duck eggs are wonderful. Very interesting to consider part of our responsibility of raising animals is to provide them with as natural an environment as possible – have mothers and fathers at hand – not just allow for free range. Thanks.

  4. Margaret Fisher says:

    About 100 years ago we bought four mallards (I know, it’s illegal, but we were young) one spring for our three kids. They must have been past day 17, for as they grew they always gave us a wide birth. We had one male and three females, the children giving them the moniker Charlie and the Girls. In the Fall all flew south (with a huge running about madly and calling to each other), before taking off over the length of our very long driveway.

    In the Spring Charlie returned, came right up to the kitchen door, sporting a wildlife band on one ankle. With him was a wild female. She laid a clutch of eggs on the property, and Charlie would hang around each day, then fly to the Sudbury River for the night. (We lived about 500 yards from the river.) When the clutch hatched, my husband caught Mama and all the ducklings and released them on the river. Possibly they became snapping turtle fodder, but the water was far safer than our land.

    Charlie continued to visit each spring for a few years, and then the visits stopped. The Girls never even sent a post card – the ingrates.

  5. I read years ago that ducklings can survive without their mothers as young as three days old, as long as they have their siblings, and that siblings were more important to them.

    I think your real issue with them is that they have a clique, and you’ll never be part of it. Either that, or you don’t like creatures that can’t (or won’t) do anything outside the committee.

    This post is giving me pause over keeping ducks.

  6. Perhaps the tactic you want is from horse training, called ‘desensitizing’. Get the ducks used to you taking care of feed, water, etc. They may never be real friends and boon companions, but you should be able, with repeated and regular, non-threatening contacts, to get them more comfortable with having you around.

    Limiting your contacts with them to protect them from being scared of you doesn’t work – it reinforces their fears.

  7. Tommy — I’ll expect you to keep that information to yourself when little duck ears are listening. We’re trying to keep it a surprise.

    Hazel — I’m operating on the assumption that an adult duck would have had the chance to calm down at least a little, and her ducklings might be taught to tamp down the OMG impulse. But, since I don’t have a control group, I have no way of knowing. I like it that your three children under 12 will, at the very least, grow up with an understanding of the nuances of poultry.

    Kim — There’s a Freudian typo — breading was just what I had in mind. But I know you meant breeding, and we’re still not at the point where we want to try that, either with chickens or with ducks. I think you’re giving me too much credit on the whole natural environment issue, though. We decided against keeping them down by the pond, because we thought it would be harder to protect them from predators, and so they only have a muddly little pool to swim in. I just want my birds to seem comfortable and at-ease.

    Margaret — I love that story. And it’s a reminder that the instinct to avoid people is perfectly understandable.

    Paula — There are lots of things in this whole enterprise that I’m not sure of, but I can assure you without a shadow of a doubt that I am not jealous of my ducklings’ clique. I wasn’t even like that in high school, with people. But you shouldn’t make a decision on ducks based on my lousy 3 weeks. Lots of people love keeping them.

    Brad — You’re right, of course. They’ve only got 6 more weeks on this earth, and that may not be enough time to desensitize them. And I’m beginning to think the best thing is to leave them to themselves, make sure they have food, shelter, and water, and try meat chickens next year.

  8. OK, here’s another funny thing I’ve heard about ducks from a lot of biologists: Ever see a hen with way too many babies? Two summers ago Hank and I saw a merganser with a brood of 23! I’m told this is what happens: One mama duck with brood in tow will cross paths with another mama with brood, and invariably, one baby will get confused and go off with the other mama. Crazy, eh?

  9. We loved our ducks…sadly the foxes got the last year. We were never lucky though with hatching our own ducklings so always relied on buying them from the local ‘bird’ seller. The one thing i did love about them, that also gave me a sense of control was the fact they walk towards the direction you point. Point right, with your arm outstretched and they go that way. Point left, ditto. It’s quite funny when you turn it into a saturday night fever disco routine, and in general it is nice to be able to move them from one place to another with a few outstretched arms. (geese seem to go in the opposite direction to your pointing arm! go figure!) Our other trick was to feed them, and this made them come a running too (but i’m sure you already know this). Is there some way you can take them to a big pond somewhere? They really love to get into the water, and have a fantastic paddle about. You would not believe how beautifully white a well watered duck can get.

  10. I had no idea. I just assumed they would be like the chickens. I will have to ponder what to do for the future when we get ducks.

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