Mary had a little lamb

Its fleece was white as snow

And everywhere that Mary went,

The lamb was sure to go.

This kind of learning is called imprinting. Experiments have shown that the young of some species attach themselves to the first large moving object they see. Normally, that's their mother, but in her absence, it may be a human, or some other object and the attraction is so strong that later they will ignore their real mother. Imprinting has been demonstrated in a variety of precocial species like ducks, geese, domestic chickens, quail, pheasants, and even in such altricial species such as owls, ravens, doves, and finches. The degree of imprinting varies with species. Young wild mallards and Canada geese imprint very readily. Ring necked pheasants, very poorly. The value of imprinting for precocial species is that the brood must follow the mother where she goes as there is no "home" nest.

           Imprinting is usually a rapid form of learning, ordinarily confined to the first few hours or day in the life of the individual. In chickens and ducks, usually 12 hours after hatching is too late to try imprinting the chick. By then, it has imprinted on its other hatch mates. Most imprinting is visual. I used a red cochin bantam to hatch ring necked pheasants one year, and grey call ducks the next. Our miniature dachshund puppy, Lucy, was almost the exact same color and size as the cochin, and when the hen and ducklings were in the yard, the ducklings would follow Lucy, which made Lucy very nervous.

           Sometimes imprinting seems to work both ways.  One year a grey call duck hatched 6 ducklings.  I took 3 of them and attempted to imprint them on me because I wanted some less flighty ducks, but was too late. They were already starting to dry off. I kept them in the kitchen in a glass aquarium and they would half heartedly follow me around when I took them out.  But what amazed me, was when I took them outside when they were two weeks old, the mother duck flew out of the pen where her remaining three ducklings were and rushed to the chicken yard fence trying to get the three ducklings she had not seen or heard from in two weeks. She recognized their voices from the peeping they made while hatching.

           If the imprinting attachment continues into adulthood, the bird may react sexually toward the object upon which it was imprinted. Animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz tells of a parakeet that adopted a swinging ping-pong ball as its companion. A heron, hand raised in a zoo, imprinted on his keeper and, as an adult, addressed its social land courtship behavior toward him. Later a female was placed in the cage. At first the male ignored her, but after being left alone for some time, he courted her and they raised several broods.  However, if the keeper appeared, the heron would drive the female from the nest and "turning to his keeper, perform the ceremony of nest-relief, inviting him to step into the nest and incubate!" (Much of this in formation come from The Life of Birds by Joel Carl Welty, W.B. Saunders Company)

H W Heusmann