“Ducklings will imprint on anything that moves that’s bigger than a matchbox,” says Antone Martinho-Truswell, who co-founded the Duckling Laboratory at the University of Oxford while getting his doctorate in zoology. Ducks are what scientists call precocial birds — capable of feeding, swimming and walking soon after hatching. Still, ducklings are vulnerable, which is why the little puffballs evolved to seek and memorize the image of their mothers. Should a duckling hatch and not see her, it will eagerly imprint on something else, like you.
Hang around a duckling constantly, right after it hatches. Ducklings are most sensitive to imprinting 12 to 36 hours after they emerge from the egg (and the imprinting window lasts about 14 days). Place yourself where they can see you. Birds are visual creatures; a duckling opens its eyes and immediately starts looking for a caregiver. They prefer duck-size objects and S-curve-shaped necks, but they aren’t picky — they will imprint on humans, cats, dogs or, in the case of Martinho-Truswell’s lab research, brightly colored plastic balls or cardboard shapes suspended from a rotating boom on a string. Avoid wearing yellow; ducklings would rather not imprint on anything yellow-colored. “We think that’s to keep them from imprinting on their siblings,” Martinho-Truswell says. Don’t become a duck parent on a whim, though; it’s a big commitment. Imprinting is helpful if you’re a duck farmer, but otherwise might be a burden. Mallard ducks can live for more than 20 years. “You’re taking on something that is going to treat you as its mother for the first year and then as family for the rest of its life,” he says.
In the lab, Martinho-Truswell hatched his ducklings in the dark, and for almost two days the only moving objects they saw were the dangling shapes. After a day or so he would take the ducklings out of their boxes, and they seemed relieved to imprint on him instead, running and tumbling after him around the lab. “I really liked being a mom to all of those little ducks,” he says. Before that initial 14-day window closed, he would give the ducklings to a nearby farm so that the ducklings would transfer their imprint onto its farmer. Let yourself feel the interspecies tenderness of a duckling’s attachment; this tiny thing needs you. “In the egg, it can’t predict what its mother is going to look like,” Martinho-Truswell says.