Have you ever heard someone talking about how baby birds can imprint on someone? You might even have heard this referenced about chicks or ducklings.
There’s a good reason poultry owners talk about this, and that’s because it’s true!
Baby birds really will mentally and emotionally latch on to you if they think you are their mother, and that includes ducklings.
I know it sounds totally adorable, because pretty soon you’ll have a little parade of ducks following after you, but there are some really important reasons that you should take the time to do this if you own ducklings.
It will help your ducklings develop properly emotionally, and bond them to you more closely as they mature.
But, this is something that is surprisingly easy to mess up, so to help you get your ducklings thinking of you as their mom, I’m bringing you a guide that will help.
Table of Contents:
What is Imprinting?
Imprinting is a process where a young animal create a social preference towards a mother or parent figure as a direct result of exposure to it, typically immediately after birth.
Most commonly demonstrated in birds, including ducks, this is a fundamental and crucial moment in a duckling’s life.
How Does Imprinting Work?
The science of how imprinting works psychologically is a very lengthy and highly nuanced discussion.
But the short version is that baby birds, newly hatched, have no expectation or idea whatsoever of what their mother or other parent looks like when they are born.
As such, there’s an impulse that will instruct them to bond with the nearest moving object that they can see. After hatching, they do so in very short order.
Typically, the critical period for imprinting (the time at which this preference toward the parental figure is set) usually takes about a day or even less.
Also, the instinct to imprint is so strong for these ducklings that they don’t even have to imprint on a living thing.
It’s no exaggeration at all to say that they will bond with anything that moves that is just a little bit bigger than they are. It could be a shoe, a puppet or, if you aren’t careful, the lid of the brooder box!
Knowing this, and also knowing how short a timetable you have to get your ducklings to imprint on you, it is imperative that you not only be present for this phase of their lives.
Also you should conduct yourself correctly to ensure they print on you, and that the bond is strong and reliable as they age.
Why is Imprinting Your Ducklings Important?
Obviously, if you own your ducklings and you’ll be handling them and interacting with them on a regular basis, you want them to trust and like you.
There’s nothing that ducklings like more than mom, so if they think you are mom, they’re going to like you and follow you given any opportunity.
This is the default attitude of ducklings: follow mom, trust mom.
Ducklings are typically terrified of anything else besides their mother, so if they don’t think that you are mom they’re stress levels will increase whenever you feed them, clean the brooder, bathe them and so forth.
So long as your ducklings believe that you are their mommy, they won’t be afraid of you and your life will be much easier. Your ducklings will also be much healthier!
Can You Still Raise Ducks that Didn’t Imprint on You?
Yes. It is absolutely possible to raise ducks, and even ducklings, that have not imprinted on you, but as mentioned, it is going to be a little bit more difficult.
Ducklings will typically try to run away from you or hide if they can, and they will be more stressed generally.
It is possible to form a meaningful friendship with adult ducks that did not imprint on you, but the process will be made more difficult than it had to be if the opposite were true.
That being said, the rule of thumb is always to be sweet, nice, calm, and gentle with your ducks whether they are little babies or adults.
If you have the opportunity to raise your ducklings from hatching, definitely do whatever it takes to get them to imprint on you and thank me later!
What’s the Easiest Way to Get Ducks to Imprint on You?
Simply be present with the ducklings when they are hatchlings, and the sooner you can be present after hatching the better.
Make sure the only moving thing they can see, besides each other, is you: no other people, definitely no pets and preferably nothing else whatsoever moving in the background or the immediate area.
Be where they can see you, preferably all of you or at least your face. Talk sweetly to them, touch them and let them get used to you.
If you can spend most of a day with your ducklings after they have hatched and are moving around, chances are very high that they will imprint on you.
The First Day After Hatching is Critical!
Remember this! The critical period for imprintation only lasts anywhere from 14 to 20 hours. That is after hatching! Beyond this point, a duckling’s mind is pretty well made up on what mom is, and it had better be you.
Otherwise, it will be a long, annoying, and somewhat laborious process to get your ducklings to trust you in place of whatever they have locked onto.
Be Warned: Ducklings Can and Will Imprint on Anything that Moves!
I’ve alluded to it several times already throughout this article, but it bears repeating for emphasis: ducklings can, and absolutely will, imprint on anything that moves that is bigger than they are. Let me repeat: anything that moves!
If your ducklings can see out of their brooder box at floor level and notice your boots going back and forth but they can’t really see all of you, in your entirety, they might imprint on that specific pair of boots.
They can imprint on your child, or on a dog or a cat. They could imprint on a branch that is blowing in the breeze by a nearby window. Anything you can think of!
This is why wildlife rehabbers use (pretty unconvincing) puppets to deal with baby birds that are going to be released back into the wild: you don’t want them imprinting on people in that case, so even a silly puppet will do.
Accordingly, you should do what you can to provide a “clean slate” background to minimize confusion.
When you are interacting with your ducklings immediately after hatching the only thing they should be able to see is you, and preferably see your face along with the rest of your body and your hands.
If you just stick your hand into the brooder they will imprint on “hand” as mom, not necessarily “person” as mom!
You Still Need to Treat Your Imprinted Ducklings Properly
Now, just because your baby ducks will imprint on you and believe that you are, wholeheartedly, 100% their mother that doesn’t give you carte blanche to act however you want just because of this implicit trust.
Baby ducklings are still incredibly delicate, easily stressed and even more easily scared.
If you want that bond to stay strong, and you want to set the stage for a happy life of friendship with your adult ducks, you still need to conduct yourself properly with them.
The following sections will tell you what to do.
1. Limit Loud Noises
Try to keep the loud noises, of any kind, to a minimum around your ducklings. Any loud racket, shouting, screaming, coughing, sneezing and so forth can startle the little things and you don’t want to do that.
Stress is very bad for ducklings, especially if they associate it with “mom”.
2. Try Not to Make Sudden, Explosive Movements
Ducks have deeply ingrained instincts and responses to fundamental predator activity, which for a duck is typically a sudden, explosive movement that is closing in on them from above or from the side.
Don’t look like a predator: make your movements slow and gentle around your ducklings at all times. Don’t surprise them!
3. Talk Nicely to Them
You already know that ducklings peep pretty much constantly, whether they are happy or not, and accordingly their mother will make sounds back at them.
This is all part of being a duck mom, and while you don’t have to quack like a duck, you should talk softly and sweetly to them. The sounds you make will further help to familiarize you to your ducklings and also reassure them.
4. Take Care of Them, and Keep Them Clean
Ducklings get dirty, in the wild and in the brooder. They need periodic cleaning, and part of a mother duck’s role is grooming and caring for the hygiene of her tiny children.
This means that you should do the same, cleaning up after your ducklings, changing out the bedding, and washing them gently if they get truly soiled. They’ll appreciate it, appreciate you, and also stay healthier.
5. Bring Them Food- And Especially Treats!
Let’s face it, every single animal on earth is food-motivated, and that includes your tiny, precious ducklings. And what kind of duck mom would you be if you didn’t feed your little babies?
You should always feed your ducklings according to proper dietary guidelines, but don’t forget to give them an occasional treat when they are old enough to safely eat it. This will really endear you to your ducklings.
Can You Get Older Ducks to Imprint on You the Same Way?
Not really. Imprinting as a phenomenon is something that truly only occurs at a very early stage in a duck’s life. Adult ducks tend to be far more wary and show considerably more autonomy than ducklings
For instance, adult ducklings may not want to be held at all, or even touched, even if they do like you.
For adult ducks that are not familiar with you they’re probably going to move away from you constantly and that can be demoralizing.
That said, it is possible to tame adult ducks and strike up a good friendship with them by following the procedures outlined above and plying them with lots and lots of their favorite foods.
Pretty soon they’ll be running to you as soon as they know you’re there!
You might not have that same closeness that you did with your baby ducks that imprinted on you, but they’ll still like you well enough all the same.
Will Your Ducklings Always Treat You Like Their Mom?
Not necessarily. As birds grow and mature, they will stop following their mother in lockstep.
They’ll begin to venture out more on their own, show more independence, and demonstrate more of their own individual preferences.
This means that your ducklings’ relationship with you might cool as they mature.
However, you’re far more likely to stay on good, friendly terms with any adult duck that you raised from a hatchling. This is a relationship that is not so quick to grow old!
But, if you’re duck does mature into a withdrawn, standoffish adult then you need to accept that: that is just the way things are. It’s not likely, but it can happen.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.