Bird brain

Because of something called imprinting, some birds may be confused about exactly who their mother is. Imprinting, a term first used by Austrian zoologist Loren Eisley, refers to a period of time in a bird’s life when it bonds with its mother. Usually this occurs shortly after a bird hatches. Once the bond is established, it is very hard to wipe out—and it affects the way that baby bird learn social and survival skills.

Imprinting is strongest in animals that leave the nest immediately after hatching, such as ducks or chickens. For this reason, it seems that nature has developed this way to keep the young, defenceless birds from wandering too far from their mother’s protection.

After a baby duck or chick hatches and opens its eyes, it considers the first moving object it spots to be its mother. It will follow that creature or thing around, imitating it and learning its behaviour, such as how to find food and greet other animals.

In wood ducks, the bond from imprinting is especially strong. Because of imprinting, the babies recognize their mother’s call. These birds nest high in trees. The mother waits for her ducklings to hatch and then flies to the ground where she calls up to her babies. This I’ve seen myself in my many years learning gardening! One by one, they drop out of the nest, plummeting up to 50 feet (15m) to the ground where thy trust they will join their mother.

Scientific tests show that if their biological mother isn’t around during the imprinting period, some birds will bond with other things—a puppet held by a human, a dog, or even a little girl, as is the case for geese in the 1996 film Fly Away Home.