Not long ago I watched a small group of mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) ducklings as they swam around Baum Lake (Shasta County CA). Sooo.. . cute!
After incubating for 27 to 28 days the precocial ducklings hatch. Precocial birds are those that are fairly mature and mobile from the moment of hatching. Mallard ducklings can swim as soon as they hatch. These young ducks do not go off on their own because of filial imprinting. Instead they stay near their mother for the next 50 to 60 days until they are completely flight capable. During this time the mother provides warmth, protection, and teaches the ducklings to forage and feed. Once the young mallards can fly they will either go off on their own or remain with the mother until the next breeding season. The mother was just out of the frame in this picture.
Filial imprinting is learning that occurs at a particular stage in life. Nidifugous birds (those that leave the nest shortly after hatching) “imprint” or attach themselves to the first suitable movable stimulus and follow it around. Usually that is the mother. However, birds can be imprinted on other animals or even moving inanimate objects. Filial imprinting was popularized by Konrad Lorenz in the early 1900s when he imprinted goslings hatched in captivity on himself. The goslings believed Lorenz to be their “mother” and followed him everywhere.
“Make Way for Ducklings”, a childrens’ picture book by Robert McCloskey, was a favorite of my son and daughter. About a pair of mallards that raise a family in the Boston Public Gardens, I read that book to them at least a hundred times and still cannot see ducklings without thinking of that story.
For more mallard information and pictures check out my earlier post on mallards.