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.