Ducklings are capable of abstract thought, according to a new study from the University of Oxford. If confirmed, this would suggest that ducks are capable of a higher level of thoughts, similar to those seen in apes, as well as parrots and crows.
Ducks were found to be able to understand the concepts of "different" and "same." Within 15 minutes of hatching, ducklings can learn to follow around the first moving object they see, which is usually their mother. This process, which can only occur during a certain time period, is known as imprinting.
Researchers exposed the imprinting ducklings to pairs of moving objects — for instance, two spheres. After the imprinting period, the birds were shown matching pairs, such as a pair of pyramids, as well as differing objects. Investigators theorized the young birds would follow matched pairs to a greater degree than unmatched pairs, and the birds did just that 75 percent of the time. The correlation was seen between matching shapes as well as matching colors.
"[T]his is the first demonstration of a non-human organism learning to discriminate between abstract relational concepts without any reinforcement training. The other animals that have demonstrated this ability have all done so by being repeatedly rewarded for correct performance, while our ducklings did it spontaneously, thanks to their predisposition to imprint when very young," said Alex Kacelnik from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.
This ability of day-old ducks to carry out abstract thought once thought to be the domain of higher animals is likely a survival mechanism, researchers speculate. Such a small, helpless animal needs to stay close to its mother for protection, and imprinting can provide that ability. Ducklings were found to recognize matching and unmatching pairs much faster than other animals, with a significant degree of understanding.
Ducks have a problem that many other animals do not experience. The animals are able to walk on land, fly through the air and swim in water. Because of this, young ducklings see their parent as a constantly-shifting shape. If the young ducks memorized a particular shape or look, the birds would soon not be able to recognize their mother, becoming lost.
It would seem that "bird-brain" may not be as much of an insult as some people believe — ducks appear to be as intelligent, at least as far as abstract thought is concerned.
Analysis of the process of imprinting in ducklings was detailed in the journal Science.