How to Make a Duckling Think You’re Its Mother

How to Make a Duckling Think You’re Its Mother
Photo: Nadezhda Zaruchevskaia, Shutterstock

My goal in life is to have a squad of six ducklings following me around at all times, because I think this will make women like me. I’ve tried walking around with a parrot on my shoulder, wearing spats, and being super into iguanas, and none of them worked out, but I have a solid shot with the ducklings. They’re really cute.

Soon, I’ll be able to walk into Starbucks with all muh duckies and be like, “Gimme a latte,” and the barista will go, “Name?” and I’ll be all, “Just put down ‘Duck Guy,’ Sweets, everyone knows who I am.” (Baristas love it when you call them “Sweets.”)

Luckily for me, it’s super-easy to get ducklings, goslings, and other baby birds to think you are their mother. I am a man of action, so I am following the imprinting advice Antone Martinho-Truswell, co-founder of the Duckling Laboratory at the University of Oxford, gave to The New York Times, as well as other duckling-imprinting information sources from the internet.

What to do before you hatch duck eggs

Don’t just go down to a local farm or pond and hang around the ducks hoping they’ll start following you. It doesn’t work, and the geese hate it (they will bite you). You need your own birds to raise up from nothing, which means you’re going to have to hatch some eggs. But before you do, consider the following:

  • Do you really want a pet duck? Pet-ownership/parenthood is a big responsibility. Once a duck fully imprints on you, it’s yours, for good or ill, for the rest of its life (or yours). You can’t take back imprinting. You can’t hand it off to someone else. I’ll get more into the ethical consideration of duckling/human bonding later, but know that this is a relationship fraught with potential moral peril.
  • Is it legal to own ducks where you live? Different states, counties, cities, and home owners’ associations have different rules about what pets you can keep. Learn yours before you do this.

If you’ve come to a personal understanding and acceptance of the strange, inter-species relationship you are about to enter, and you’re sure it’s legal, here’s how to hatch eggs!

How to hatch duckling eggs

  • Get an incubator: Because you are hatching eggs without a mum-duck to sit upon them, you have to carefully control the temperature and humidity of their environment. Hence the incubator. An incubator is basically a box that is warm and moist, so it’s not too hard to make your own, but I highly recommend buying one. Because capitalism is strange, consumer incubators are cheaper to buy than acquiring the parts to make your own. They will cut out a ton of work and are more likely to result in healthy ducklings. There are many incubators on the market. This one has everything you’ll need, including temperature and humidity gauges, a fan, egg turners, and even a candler, for only $US32 ($44). If you must make your own, I have included instructions for a janky, homemade incubator at the end of this post, but it’s probably not going to work as well.
  • Get some eggs. You can buy mallard eggs online for very reasonable prices. In nature, mallards typically hatch between nine and 12 eggs, but usually only two or three survive the first month — nature is brutal. Because your ducklings will be pampered, fed in abundance, and protected from predators by your human intellect, you won’t have this problem once they’re born. Before that, expect about a 50% success rate, and buy twice as many eggs as you want followers. Even professionals who hatch eggs for a living only get about an 80% success rate.
  • Warm up your incubator. Turn your heatbox on for a day or two before the eggs arrive so you know it works, can maintain a stable temperature, and will be ready to go as soon the eggs arrive. For mallard eggs, you want a a temperature of 37°C and 55% humidity.
  • Inspect your eggs. Once your eggs arrive, look them over and candle them — that means shine a bright light into them. Your incubator might come with a candler; if it doesn’t, you can use a strong flashlight. Do not try to hatch eggs that are cracked, double yolked, misshapen, oversized, or undersized. Toss ‘em instead.
  • Lay ‘em in the incubator and wait. If you took my advice and bought an incubator, it will handle all of the egg-turning, temperature and humidity regulation, and ventilation needed.
  • Candle your eggs again. About a week into the process, inspect your eggs again. Discard any that are clear or cloudy. Here are some pictures of healthy and unhealthy eggs to give you an idea. Other than that, you can leave your eggs alone.
  • Enjoy the blessed Hatching Day!

Let’s get to the imprinting

Actually raising and caring for ducks is a complicated commitment, but there are tons of resources out there to help you. Imprinting, meanwhile, is not that complicated. Here’s are the steps to make sure your duckling friend/friends view you as their mother:

  • Hang around your ducklings constantly. Ducklings start looking around for their mothers about 12 to 36 hours after they emerge from their little eggs, so make sure you’re there. The imprinting window lasts about two weeks, and during that time, you should spend as much time with your ducklings as possible.
  • Make sure they can see you. Ducklings are mainly visual creatures, so be in their line-of-sight as much as possible.
  • Play them classical music. Studies have shown classical music improves bird imprinting efforts. (I’m going with early Sabbath, though — I want my ducklings to be badasses.)
  • Keep grown ducks away. Ducks will imprint on things that are roughly duck-shaped and sized if they can, but they’ll imprint on you fine if there’s no other choice. They’ll actually imprint on just about anything — cats, dogs, even non-living objects if they move around — so don’t feel too special.
  • Do not wear yellow. Ducklings will not imprint readily on yellow things, probably because ducklings are yellow, and they’ve evolved to not think of their brothers and sisters as their mothers.
  • Be consistent. During the 14-day imprint window, ducks can “switch” to different “mothers,” including cats and dogs or other people. So makes sure they see only you.
  • Enjoy your forever-pet. If all goes well, when the two weeks are up, your duck’s brain should be wired to see you as its mother. You are, as Oxford’s duckling master Antone Martinho-Truswell put it, “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.” That’s five to 10 years.
  • Imprint more ducklings. There is no limit to the number of ducklings one can have imprinted upon them. I’m going with six because I am a sensible person, but there’s nothing in the rulebook that says you can’t have hundreds or thousands of ducklings following you around at all times! You can become Lord of the Ducks! Wait, there are almost certainly local laws that limit the number of ducks you can have. Sorry, Lord of the Ducks.

The longterm consequences of human/duck bonding

For the first year of your ducklings’ life, they will treat you as a parent; then, like human children, your duck-buddies will grow up. But they’ll still depend upon you. Congratulations, genius, you now own hundreds of ducks that you need to care for until they die (or until you cook them and eat them).

On the plus side, ducks are good layers and their eggs are delicious. On the negative side, there’s basically everything else. According to both wildlife experts and duck-aficionados, human-imprinted ducks identify with people for the rest of their lives. They are not normal. They won’t be able to relate to their duck peers, and probably won’t join a flock. Instead they’ll depend on you and whatever friends and family you have left for all social interaction and stimulation. You’ll have to keep them safe, fed, and entertained. They will, in return, occasionally quack. These ducks think they’re people, but they are just confused ducks — not even domesticated animals like cats and dogs, but wild animals that can’t truly be wild. It’s a nightmarish, cruel, and unnatural life if you think about it, and if you believe ducks can feel in human ways. If they could talk, they might ask, “Why have you done this to me?”

Morality and ethics aside, raising and caring for grown-up ducks is no picnic (unless you decide to cook and eat them — then it totally can be a picnic!). They are high-maintenance pets. They poop a lot, and poop violently. They poop every 15 to 30 minutes. You (probably) cannot house train ducks. You can only make them wear duck diapers, which are way less adorable than they sound. On the plus side, if it doesn’t work out, you can, again, cook and eat them.

Ultimately, making a duck imprint upon you can be helpful if you’re a duck farmer, but for a regular person, it’s morally questionable, labour-intensive, and huge pain in the arse. I’m not going to let that stop me, though. I have a dream. A dream, and hopefully soon, some ducklings.

As promised, if you must create your own incubator, here’s how:

How to make a janky, homemade incubator

Janky, homemade incubator supplies:

  • A 76 l aquarium
  • Duck tape (of course.)
  • A piece of plexiglass that fits over the aquarium’s opening
  • A small lamp
  • Lightbulbs of various wattages — old school, not LED. They are the heating unit.
  • A bread pan
  • A sponge
  • At least two precise thermometers
  • A hygrometer (A gauge that measures temperature)

Post-script: How to make a janky homemade incubator

  • Place your aquarium on a sturdy table away from direct sunlight or any heat sources, but near an outlet.
  • Turn the aquarium on its side.
  • Cut the plexiglass sheet wider than the opening of the aquarium and affix it with duck duct tape on the top edge. You want a tape “hinge” so you can open and close the door when needed.
  • Insert the lamp. The cord can just come through the door.
  • Hang your hygrometer.
  • Hang your thermometers evenly throughout the incubator so you can read them from outside — the idea is to average the temperatures in different parts of the incubator to get a more accurate read.
  • Put your wet sponge in the bread pan.
  • Turn on your lamp and wait until the thermometers settle on a reading. Change the lightbulbs and wet the sponge until you get the temperature to 37°C and 55% humidity.
  • You will have to constantly monitor this temperature and humidity throughout the hatching process.
  • Don’t do any of this. Buy an incubator instead.

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