Chick and Duckling Imprinting
How Imprinting Psychology Affects the Success of Your Flock
Reading Time: 7 minutes
When young birds hatch, they quickly learn to stay close to a protective carer. This phenomenon is called imprinting. But do all birds imprint? What about domesticated poultry? Imprinting occurs in all bird species that have good eyesight and mobility within a few hours of hatching, which is the case for all domestic birds apart from pigeons. As ground-nesting parents are likely to lead their family away soon after hatching to avoid predation, the young quickly learn to identify and follow their mother for protection. Chick, gosling, poult, keet, cygnet, or duckling imprinting is the quickest way for nature to ensure that newly-hatched poultry stick with their parent.
Despite the protection we provide on the farm, poultry parents and young still retain these instincts. Indeed, maternal care is still invaluable when you raise free-range chickens or other poultry. The mother defends her young and leads them to safety. She shows them how to forage and roost. She encourages their choice of foodstuff and warns them what not to feed on. From her and the flock, youngsters learn appropriate social behavior and communication skills. They learn how to identify potential mates. Therefore, it is important for a chick to imprint on an appropriate mother figure.
What Is Chick and Duckling Imprinting?
Imprinting is a rapid and deeply ingrained learning that occurs in a brief sensitive period of the young life. It enables animals that have to learn and mature quickly to stay under maternal protection and learn life skills. The famous ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, explored geese imprinting in the 1930s by raising young goslings imprinted on himself.
Gosling (or chick or duckling) imprinting normally occurs during the first day after hatching. Initially, hatchlings peep as they seek out heat. The mother responds by brooding them. As they become active, they latch on to the hen, attracted by her warmth, movement, and clucking. However, they have no preconceived notion of what a suitable mother should look like. In a brooder, after initially huddling together for warmth, they will attach to the first conspicuous object they see, especially if it is moving. Often this is a human carer, or the group of siblings but, as has been shown experimentally, it can be objects of any size or color.
Experience within the egg assists them to make the right choices by encouraging a bias to certain sounds or forms. In nature this would prepare them to correctly identify their parent. The peeping of unhatched ducklings encourages them to gravitate towards adult duck calls on hatching, improving the chances of healthy duckling imprinting on a suitable parent. Unhatched chicks synchronize their hatching through the stimulus of their siblings’ calls. Even while still in the egg, chicks’ peeps convey distress or satisfaction to the broody hen who responds accordingly. The hen’s clucks predispose hatchlings to imprint on a hen-like form. Personal recognition develops within the next few days.
So, what happens if they fixate on a surrogate mother? If she is of the same species and her mothering hormones are triggered, there should be no problem. A broody hen will normally accept any day-old chicks introduced within a couple of days of the first hatching, as she has no reason to believe they are not her own. The chicks will benefit from her protection and mothering skills. If the mother is of a different species, the young may learn unsuitable behavior, and later they are sexually attracted to the species of their carer, rather than their own.
When Imprinting Causes Trouble
Ducklings raised by a hen do not realize that they are not chickens and attempt to learn from her behavior. However, chickens have different survival strategies to ducks: they bathe in dust rather than water, perch rather than sleep on water, and forage by scratching and pecking rather than dabbling. Given the appropriate resources, the ducklings will get by, but may not learn the full repertoire of normal species behavior.
The most problematic effect is their sexual bias. Drakes raised by hens prefer to court and mate with hens, much to the hens’ distress, while hen-imprinted ducks seek matings from bewildered roosters.
It is very difficult to reverse such imprinting, resulting in frustration for the animals involved. For example, a rooster imprinted on ducks may display in vain from the riverbank, while the ducks swim away unheeding. A rooster imprinted on a cardboard box will repeatedly attempt to mount it. Such issues do not arise in the wild, where hatchlings imprint on their natural mother, her being the closest moving thing in the nest. Care is needed to avoid inappropriate imprinting when incubating artificially.
Hand-reared poultry may imprint on someone and attempt to follow that person everywhere. These youngsters may have difficulty integrating into the flock. In addition, they usually prefer to court humans, unless they have contact with their own species from an early age. Although they may retain this sexual and social preference, early integration with their own species normally reorients them enough to allow breeding. Birds imprinted on humans do not fear them, but this attachment does not always lead to friendship. A rooster is territorial and may view humans as competitors in later life and display aggression.
Some Solutions to Avoid Imprinting Problems
Zoos have experienced breeding difficulties when young birds are raised in isolation. These days, great care is taken to make sure that hatchlings do not imprint on their keepers. Staff dress in sheet-like costumes that hide their features and feed hatchlings using a glove that imitates the head and bill of the parent species. The young are then introduced to members of their own species as soon as possible.
Poultry breeders wishing to incubate artificially and then encourage integration with the adult flock also avoid close visual contact with hatchlings. Feed and water are provided behind a screen or while out of sight. However, some turkey poults do not eat or drink without maternal encouragement. A disguise and a poultry hand puppet could be the answer!
Hatchlings with no carer imprint on each other, which means that they learn all their life skills from their siblings. Having no experienced leader, they may learn unsafe behavior, such as eating the wrong food. Extra care is needed to ensure their environment is safe and that they learn where food and water are located. You can dip their beaks in water and scatter crumb to help them learn.
Some modern poultry breeds have lost their instinct to go broody, as the tendency has been reduced through selective breeding for egg production. However, several backyard and heritage breeds of duck, chicken, goose, and turkey successfully brood and raise their own clutches, accepting eggs from other members of the flock.
Growing Up and Learning
Once imprinted, the attachment is normally deeply ingrained and virtually impossible to transfer. Young will subsequently avoid anything that is unfamiliar. If you wish to tame your chicks, it is most effective to feed by hand and handle them within the first three days, after they have bonded with their mother or surrogate. Thereafter they develop a fear of humans. Their attachment to their mother grows as they learn to recognize her calls and her appearance.
The mother attends to her young until they fledge and lose the fluffy down from their heads (although I have witnessed her care last longer). Then she rejoins her adult companions, while her offspring remain a sibling group and start to integrate into the flock. Her early guidance will have equipped them with the social and communication skills they need to navigate the pecking order, as well as local knowledge for foraging, avoiding predators, and how and where to bathe, rest, or perch. Soon they will be joining in these communal activities with the flock. Although it is possible to raise young artificially or using a different species, there is no substitute for the richness of learning gained from being raised by a same-species mother.
Originally published in the February/March 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Sources: Broom, D. M. and Fraser, A. F. 2015. Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare. CABI.
Manning, A. and Dawkins, M. S. 1998. An Introduction to Animal Behaviour. Cambridge University Press.