Couch-sitting, TV-watching duck is human imprinting gone wrong

MONKTON — Picture this: an 11-year-old wood duck sits on the couch with a Vermont family, watching TV and eating their popcorn.
This is no hallucination, but a real example of a worrying behavioral pattern: wild animal imprinting on humans.
Imprinting refers to the crucial process in which a young animal learns what species it is. For precocial birds like ducks and geese, imprinting is based on sight, and takes place almost immediately.
“It’s like the first 32 hours after hatching that they imprint on the biggest movable object that they see,” explained Helena Nicolay, one of a small handful of licensed waterfowl rehabilitators in Vermont. Nicolay cares for a large assortment of rescued animals at her Monkton home, including five imprinted geese and ducks. Ideally, of course, the recipient of a young bird’s imprinting should be its own mother, but for the ones in Nicolay’s care, it tended to be people.
Nicolay’s most severe case is Gary, the TV-watching duck who imprinted on a human immediately after hatching. There’s clearly something off about his behavior: he makes eye contact with his human visitors, and races toward them instead of running away when they arrive.
“A lady ordered some eggs from Minnesota and only one hatched, and then (Gary) was kept in a house for three years in diapers,” Nicolay said, showing the plastic contraptions that were once strapped to Gary’s rear end. “We’ve had him since 2010, and he’s so imprinted.”
“He thinks he’s a person, and there’s no way to convince him otherwise,” she said.
All too often, Nicolay said, people come upon a young, vulnerable-looking hatchling and adopt it for a few days, allowing it to become habituated to human contact and care. Instead, she says, rescuers should follow a few simple steps to prevent such damaging imprinting from occurring, which dooms the young bird to a life of domesticity or likely death in the wild.
“Determine first if there’s a need,” she said. A group of 10 young birds marching together are probably following their mother, while a solitary bird running in circles is likely in need of rescue.
“Then put it in a dark box, or take your shirt off and wrap it up — whatever,” she said. “Then, you can call the State Police, your veterinarian, you can google a rehabber near you and take it there. Don’t take it home, don’t try to feed it, don’t give it to your little niece until you find help.”
It’s hard to resist the urge to take a found hatchling under your wing, Nicolay said. But bringing it swiftly to a local expert, who can place it with members of its fellow species, can allow it to live out its life in the wild — not on the couch.

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