The Imprinting of Birds

Imprinting Baby Chicks

Imprinting Baby Chicks

When a baby chick hatches from the egg, the chick imprints on the first moving object that it sees.  The chick believes the imprinted object to be its mother, even if that object is a human being.  Imprinting stamps the mind of a bird with a lifelong image of itself, and that initial stamp is irreversible.

Farmers have long known about imprinting.  In ancient China, farmers imprinted their newly hatched ducklings with a special stick.  Whoever carried that stick could lead great flocks of ducks through the fields each day and back home again at night to their roosts.

In 1973, a scientist named Konrad Lorenz won the Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking research around imprinting.  Dr. Lorenz discovered that human-imprinted birds would not perform courtship rituals in the wild, because the birds were confused about their identity.

This research explained why human-imprinted whooping cranes would not mate when released into the wild.  Now, when whooping crane chicks are hatched in captivity, their human caretakers wear giant crane costumes to feed the chicks, to make sure the chicks imprint to cranes, and never to people.  This development has helped the wild whooping crane population begin to reestablish itself.

Picking up Chicks from the Post Office

Picking up Chicks from the Post Office

On our farm, we receive most of our chickens as day-old chicks mailed to us from a hatchery.  When I open those boxes full of newly-born, chirping little chicks, they are imprinted with my image, and for the rest of their lives they run to me when I open the gate, and crowd around my heels and follow me.

Sometimes, however, a rogue hen will fly the coop and lay her eggs in secret somewhere in the forest.  When these chicks hatch, they imprint to the mother hen.  These bird-imprinted hens are skittish and they run away when I open the gate.  Human-imprinted laying hens are much easier for a farmer to manage.

A Good Rooster

A Good Rooster

However, the best roosters are bird-imprinted—the chicks born to the rogue hens.  These roosters understand the natural order—they maintain discipline in the hen house but they are not aggressive toward people.  Usually, belligerent roosters that attack people are human-imprinted birds, and they think of people as competitors for their hens.

These days, my favorite imprinting technique is to have my six-year-old daughter open the box when baby chicks arrive in the mail.  She imprints her sweet face onto the chicks, and when those chicks grow up into laying hens, they are very friendly to her when she goes out to collect their eggs.

Gathering Eggs

2 responses

  1. Of course I’ve heard about the whooping cranes and such, and seen the disguised caretakers. PBS loves that stuff! But I had no idea of the practical implications of imprinting for farmers with chickens – and roosters, for that matter. It all makes sense now, and once again serves as a reminder that every trade has its “tricks”. The detail about the duck caretaker with the stick is equally fascinating.

    Not only that – what a lovely photo of your daughter. I rarely find use for the word “insouciant”, but it certainly does come to mind.

    • Insouciant is a great word, I love it!

      I did learn something very interesting about imprinting, after I wrote this, when I met Bob and Karen Benson. Bob is a master falconer, and has trained and hunted falcons. It turns out that the government actually mandates that hunting falcons be imprinted to HUMANS, and not to birds.

      The reason for this is that there are many exotic breeds of hunting hawks brought in from different places in the world. If the hunting hawks are imprinted to birds, they may escape their caretakers and go into the forest and begin to mate with native hawks, and that could cause real problems. However, if the hunting hawks are imprinted to humans, they will not attempt to mate with birds in the wild. This policy protects native hawks from encroachment from other species of birds.

      They next time we get ducks, I may try that trick about the stick and see how it works. I have found the domestic ducks I raise for meat to be very skittish. I have never been able to get domestic ducks to settle down with me the way chickens do, and maybe the stick will help.

      I am wishing you a wonderful day, and hope you are enjoying this beautiful weather! Justin

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