SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
June 06, 1960
A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail
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June 06, 1960

A Man May Be Some Duck's Mother

A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail

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One day late last June, beside a dirt road that runs through the Delta Waterfowl Research Station on Lake Manitoba, Canada, a 2-day-old motherless mallard duckling sat hungry and lonely, cheeping in distress. In front of the duckling stood Gilbert Gottlieb of Durham, N.C. In the two days since the duckling had chipped out of the egg in the Delta Station hatchery it had never seen its mother, nor, for that matter, seen any duck or living thing except Gilbert Gottlieb. Gottlieb was trying to see if this duckling would follow him as if he were its mother.

Gottlieb does not look like a mother duck. He is a 5-foot-10, well-proportioned, brown-eyed, bespectacled 29-year-old student of clinical psychology. As the good musculature of his shoulders suggests, Gottlieb swims well and likes water, but beyond that he has little in common with a mother duck. To get the newly hatched duckling to follow him, Gottlieb bent over and slowly backed away, moving his hands in and out as if playing a small accordion. As he backed down the road, Gottlieb repeated softly, "Come, come, come." The duckling did not come.

Gottlieb then got down on all fours and backed away like a timorous crab, still repeating, "Come, come, come." The duckling took several wandering steps, stopped, cheeped and stared vacantly up at the vast, bewildering dome of summer sky.

Newly hatched ducklings have been known to walk more than a mile following their mothers in the desperate quest for water. Ducklings, for want of a better mother, have been known to attach themselves to Leghorn hens, monkeys, humans and house cats. That being the case, what was wrong with Gilbert Gottlieb?

During the first day of the duckling's life, Gottlieb had placed it on a shielded circular platform for 20 minutes while a motorized papier-m�ch� model of a mallard drake circled the platform. The duckling began following the fake male mallard. Later, when the duckling was about 27 hours old, Gottlieb tested it again. This time a model of a female mallard, as well as the original male model, circled slowly. The duckling still followed the phony male. The duckling had learned the looks of the male model and had learned to follow it and now preferred the male to the unfamiliar female. As psychologists say in the trade, the duckling was "imprinted" on the fake male. When tested later beside the road, the duckling did not follow Gottlieb because Gottlieb does not look like a fake male mallard.

The duckling was a typical performer among 195 newly hatched mallards and domestic Pekings that Gottlieb tested under identical conditions to find out if a wild species will follow the first moving object it sees more readily and devotedly than will a domestic fowl. Since the first thing it sees usually is its real mother, this trait of following is, logically, a good one for a wild duckling. For a domestic duckling the same trait is not vital and might even be a drawback: in the heavy traffic of the barnyard the duckling that follows too readily might start going around with the wrong crowd. Whatever the logic, in his tests Gottlieb found that, by and large, both wild and domestic ducklings followed and became attached to the same fake "mother" with equal zeal.

Though Gottlieb's findings are not apt to create a stir in the world at large, over the years they will serve a variety of scientists who are trying to find out why humans, as well as ducks, behave as they do. The wild world of ducks is not yet bound for extinction, and the crowded world of men has never yet gone completely off its rocker. But both could bear some watching.

The wild ducklings that Gottlieb used for his tests were subsequently pen-reared at the Delta Station and released, and very likely most of them joined the great armadas of mallards that came down the U.S. flyways last fall from the Canadian prairies and parklands. Chances are about half of them made it safely back to some Canadian marsh this spring. The brief, strange training they experienced under Gilbert Gottlieb will probably have little effect on the fortunes of any of them. To survive, each separately will depend on its instincts, on how much it learns in the special world of ducks, and on luck.

If, in his tests at the Delta Research Station, Gottlieb had led his ducklings down the road while blowing a flute, he would have attracted scant notice. Scientists have been working at Delta for 22 years, and in that time a flute is but one of many logical and illogical tools that have been used in the study of waterfowl (ducklings respond to flutes—E below middle C works well, but the warning cry of an emperor goose works better).

The Delta Station sits astride a narrow barrier dune that separates Lake Manitoba from a long, 36,000-acre expanse of marsh. The Delta marsh is an excellent summer range for waterfowl and, accordingly, an ideal place to study them. The rotten ice, vestige of winter, still lies on the open waters of the marsh in early April when the first ducks settle in. Through spring and summer, ducks, geese, coots and scientists come and go. By the time the hard, cold winds of late October sweep the marsh, the last scientist has departed with a bushel of data, and the last lingering mallards, bellies full of grain, are marshaling to take their chances south over the hunters.

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