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Ducklings are not only cute but also smart

With their fluffy plumage, ducklings are easy to fall in love with. But the cute baby birds are also really clever. As British scientists found out in a study, the cute birdies can think abstractly.


Ducklings imprint on their mother when they hatch and follow her everywhere - Shutterstock/Shannon Jordan

Ducklings imprint on their mother when they hatch and follow her everywhere – Shutterstock/Shannon Jordan

Zoologists Antone Martinho and Alex Kacelnik of the University of Oxford in England studied ducklings’ ability to recognize and imprint on their mother. Until then, all that was known was that the chicks could also be imprinted on people, other animals, or objects if that was the first thing they saw after hatching.

Ducklings and the embossing on their mother

In the wild, it is vital for ducklings to stay close to their mother and orient themselves to her. As soon as they hatch, they look around and go for the first object in their presence that moves. In nature, this is usually the mother duck, but ducklings also take their cues from dogs, cats and other animals, people, balls or boots if that is the first “critter” they see after hatching . This phenomenon is called embossing.

"Well, what's going on back there?" – Image: Shutterstock / Valentina Razumova
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04/09/2015 – 05:41 p.m

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Pretty clever: ducklings can think abstractly

The British researchers used the imprinting ability of ducklings to test their abstract thinking. This refers to a thought process in which living beings extract (abstract) certain aspects of a concrete situation and generalize them so that they can recognize similar aspects in other situations. In this way they can understand laws, for example the principle of cause and effect. Until now, only a few animals were known to have this ability to think, such as baboons. But apparently ducklings are just as smart.

The scientists imprinted the ducklings on two objects that were in motion. For example, two balls of the same color. They then had the chicks walk around a room in which various pairs of objects were hanging from the ceiling and moving. The baby birds then also orientated themselves on balls of the same color, but ignored balls of different colors. It didn’t matter whether the balls of the same color were blue, green, yellow or red. However, the chicks also followed pyramids or cubes of the same color and shape.

They had apparently recognized that two objects of the same shape and color represented their “mother” – even if they weren’t exactly the same color and shape. The researchers concluded that ducklings must be so smart in nature that they can also recognize their mother when she is in different situations and changes her shape, such as flying, swimming, diving and running.

You can see a summary of the study in the following video:

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