Imprinting and the Mysterious Workings of a Bird’s Brain

Item in today’s news:  After 15 years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is ending its whooping crane migration program.  You know about this program – it has been in the news frequently because of its noble cause; saving whooping cranes from extinction – and because of its quirkiness; people wearing crane costumes, manipulating crane puppets, and leading migrating cranes with ultralight aircraft.  Everybody loved this program – everybody but the cranes, evidently.  It has not been very successful.
The program had very good success in hatching cranes, raising the babies, and teaching them to migrate.  The cranes in the program also successfully formed bonded pairs, mated, and laid eggs.  It was after that when things fell apart.  The cranes frequently leave their nests and often never return.  They are simply bad parents. 
Bird behavior is a combination of innate instinct and learned behavior.  It has become obvious that these birds raised by people in crane costumes are missing out on important lessons on how to be good parents that they would normally learn from other cranes.
The new approach will be to have captive cranes raise the babies and limit human intervention as much as possible.  The failure of this program underscores the importance of imprinting in baby birds.
So what, exactly, is imprinting?  Remember Yakky Doodle, the adorable Hanna-Barbera baby duck?  Yakky’s question to everybody he encountered was, “Are you my mama?”  And that is exactly the question every baby bird asks - although only Yakky asks the question out loud in English.  Basically, a baby bird decides the first moving object it sees is its mom.  Obviously, it is really more complicated than this, but if you remember that, you’ve got the basics of imprinting.

The Legbar Quints know who their mama is.
The ancient Chinese made use of this phenomenon by imprinting freshly hatched baby ducks on a special stick.  The owner of the flock of ducks could lead the entire flock to the fields each day and back home each night to the duck pens simply by carrying that stick!
Scientists didn’t delve into the study of imprinting in birds until the early 20th Century.  One of the pioneers was the Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1973.  Lorenz discovered that if he raised graylag geese from the time they hatched in the absence of adult geese, they would decide that he was their mom.  They would follow him around everywhere he went and when they became adults would actually court him.  Konrad believed that the object baby birds encounter is somehow indelibly stamped into their brains.  The German term “Stamping” was translated to the English “Imprinting.”

Most baby chicks are hatched in an incubator and raised under heat lamps.  Thus, most of the millions of chickens alive today think that humans are their moms.  The Legbar babies now living in my coop know to the core of their little bird hearts that Courtney the Silkie is their mom.  And she has unhesitatingly adopted them as her own chicks.  We have a new and happy little family here at the ranch!  In my next post I’ll talk about last weekend’s saga of driving across state lines to pick up chicks, and I’ll also share some pictures and movies of Courtney and the babies!

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