For the Birds Radio Program: Konrad Lorenz's Ducklings

Original Air Date: Jan. 30, 1987

Laura reads Konrad Lorenz’s story from King Solomon’s Ring about leading baby ducks about.

Duration: 3′57″


Konrad Lorenz’s Ducklings

(Recording of a Mallard)

One of my all-time favorite bird stories is one animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz tells in King Solomon’s Ring:

If I took from the incubator freshly hatched mallards, they invariably ran away from me and pressed themselves in the nearest dark corner. Why? I remembered that I had once let a muscovy duck hatch a clutch of mallard eggs and that the tiny mallards had also failed to accept this foster-mother. On the other hand, I once let a fat white farmyard duck hatch out mallards and the little wild things ran just as happily after her as if she had been their real mother. The secret must have lain in her call note, for, in external appearance, the domestic duck was quite as different from a mallard as was the muscovy…

The inference was clear: I must quack like a mother mallard in order to make the little ducks run after me. No sooner said than done. When, one Whit-Sunday, a brood of pure-bred mallards was due to hatch…I took the babies…under my personal care, and quacked for them the mother’s call- note in my best Mallardese.

For hours on end I kept it up, for half the day…The little ducks lifted their gaze confidently towards me, obviously had no fear of me this time, and as, still quacking, I drew slowly away from them, they also set themselves obediently in motion and scuttled after me in a tightly huddled group, just as ducklings follow their mother.

My theory was indisputably proved…Anything that emits the right quack note will be considered as mother, whether it is a fat white Pekin duck or a still fatter man. However, the substituted object must not exceed a certain height.

At the beginning of these experiments, I had sat myself down in the grass amongst the ducklings and, in order to make them follow me, had dragged myself, sitting, away from them. As soon, however, as I stood up and tried, in a standing posture, to lead them on, they gave up, peered searchingly on all sides, but not upwards towards me and it was not long before they began that penetrating piping of abandoned ducklings that we are accustomed simply to call “crying.” They were unable to adapt themselves to the fact that their foster-mother had become so tall. So I was forced to move along, squatting low, if I wished them to follow me. This was not very comfortable; still less comfortable was the fact that the mother mallard quacks unintermittently. If I ceased for even the space of half a minute from my melodious “Qualig, gegegegeg, Qualig, gegegegeg,” the necks of the ducklings became longer and longer corresponding exactly to “long faces” in human children–and did I then not immediately recommence quacking, the shrill weeping began anew…

So it came about, on a certain WhitSunday, that, in company with my ducklings, I was wandering about, squatting and quacking, in a May-green meadow at the upper part of our garden. I was congratulating myself on the obedience and exactitude with which my ducklings came waddling after me, when I suddenly looked up and saw the garden fence framed by a row of dead- white faces: a group of tourists was standing at the fence and staring horrified in my direction. Forgivable! For all the could see was a big man with a beard dragging himself, cruching, round the meadow, in figures of eight, glancing constantly over his shoulder and quacking– but the ducklings, the all-revealing and all-explaining ducklings were hidden in the tall spring grass from the view of the astonished crowd.

(Recording of a Mallard

That was Konrad Lorenz, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”