Ducklings capable of abstract thought beware of ‘bird brain’ slur

After discovering that ducklings are capable of abstract thought – they can readily acquire the concepts of ‘different’ and ‘same’ – we should rethink the use of the ‘bird brain’ slur, and consider using it for smart people.

A team of scientists at the University of Oxford in England have demonstrated that newly hatched ducklings have an innate ability to rapidly acquire the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different – a feature that experts had previously thought only existed in highly-intelligent animals such as parrots, crows and apes.

Ducklings and other baby animals typically learn to identify and follow their mothers through a kind of learning known as imprinting, which can occur within fifteen minutes of the baby bird hatching out of its egg.

Duckling Abstract Thought capabilityDucklings are capable of abstract thoughts. They demonstrated an ability to differentiate between the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’ within a short time after hatching.

Imprinting, a powerful form of learning, allows ducklings to follow any object that moves, as long as they see it within their ‘sensitive period’ for imprinting.

Professor Alex Kacelnik, of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, and colleagues wrote about their study and findings in the academic journal Science (citation below). They explained that the ducklings in their experiment were presented with a pair of objects that were either identical or different from each other – in colour or shape. These objects moved in a circular path.

The ducklings therefore ‘imprinted’ on these pairs of objects that moved before the scientists tested them on their preferences between different sets of objects.

In the tests that followed, each duckling was allowed to follow either of two pairs of objects composed of colours and shapes to which they had not previously been exposed.

Ducklings with their motherNine mallard ducklings – the species used in this study – with their mother in the river Cherwell, a major tributary of the River Thames. (Image:

For example, if one duckling had originally been exposed to two spheres, in the choice test it might have had to choose between following a pair of pyramids – same – or a pair made up of one cuboid and one cube – different.

If the baby birds had learned the relationship between members of the original moving pair, then logically they should have followed the pairs of objects they had never seen before in the experiments, thus showing their ability to recognize the relationship of either ‘same’ or ‘different’. They would not have needed to have seen the test objects before.

The scientists wrote that the ducklings that had been imprinted on two spheres should have followed the set of two pyramids, given that they were the same as each other – and this is exactly what the baby birds did.

Approximately three-quarters of the ducklings chose to follow the objects that looked the same, thus exhibiting the relationship – same – they had learned in imprinting. Their ability to identify same colors or shapes were both equally accurate.

Prof. Kacelnik, who has studied learning and decision-making in animals extensively, said:

“To our knowledge this 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.”

“And because imprinting happens so quickly, the ducklings learned to discriminate relational concepts much faster than other species, and with a similar level of precision.”

First author, Antone Martinho, a doctoral student at the University’s Zoology Department, said:

“While it seems surprising at first that these one-day-old ducklings can learn something that normally only very intelligent species can do, it also makes biological sense. When a duckling is young, it needs to be able to stay near its mother for protection, and an error in identifying her could be fatal.”

“Ducks walk, swim and fly, and are constantly changing their exact shape and appearance as they extend their wings or become partially submerged, or even change angle with respect to the viewer. If the ducklings just had a visual “snapshot” of their mother, they would lose her.”

“They need to be able to flexibly and reliably identify her, and a library of concepts and characteristics describing her is a much more efficient way to do so, compared with a visual memory of every possible configuration of the mother and her environment.”

“Still, this is an unexpected feat for a duckling, and a further reminder that “bird-brain” is quite an unfair slur.”

This latest discovery – relational concept learning in newly-hatched ducklings – suggests that this ability is probably much more common in the animal kingdom that previously thought, the authors believe.

Prof. Kacelnik added:

“It may mean that relational concepts are adaptively useful or even necessary to a wider variety of animal. Most animals will, like the ducklings, need identification mechanisms that are robust to natural variation. A challenge we face now is to identify the processes by which the animals’ brains achieve it.”

In an Abstract in Science that describes the main paper, the authors wrote:

“Newly hatched domesticated mallards that were briefly exposed to a pair of objects that were either the same or different in shape or color later preferred to follow pairs of new objects exhibiting the imprinted relation.”

“Thus, even in a seemingly rigid and very rapid form of learning such as filial imprinting, the brain operates with abstract conceptual reasoning, a faculty often assumed to be reserved to highly intelligent organisms.”

Citation: Ducklings imprint on the relational concept of ‘same or different’,” Antone Martinho III and Alex Kacelnik. Science Vol. 353, Issue 6296, pp. 286-288. 15 July 2016. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4247.

Video – Ducklings pick up ‘same’ and ‘different’ concepts

This University of Oxford video shows how hatched ducklings readily acquire notions of ‘same’ and ‘different’ – an ability we had preivously thought only higher animals had, such as apes, parrots and crows.

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