Essay

Are Ducks Smart? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence

The majority of us don’t typically think of ducks when considering intelligent birds. Most people probably think of birds like crows or parrots. That being said, you really shouldn’t undervalue ducks’ intelligence! However, how intelligent are they, and what is known about the general intelligence and behavior of ducks? Continue reading to find out more.

Are Ducks Smart as Babies? How Intelligent Are Ducklings?

It’s interesting to note that several research, even on young ducks, have been done on their general behavior and intellect. They are remarkably intelligent from birth, even surpassing the cognitive and behavioral abilities of animals like dogs and cats in certain instances. They can even think abstractly, which they utilize to interpret complicated social and environmental cues to assist them navigate their environment.

In Science, Volume 353, Issue 6296 2016, Edward A. Wasserman’s study on duck intelligence revealed that, within minutes of hatching, ducklings could recognize their mothers through abstract cognition. Their early intelligence is almost comparable to that of newborn primates, based on how quickly they can imprint on a moving item or animal.

Ducklings pick up abstract ideas like “differentiation” and “sameness” fairly rapidly. It was originally thought by researchers that ducklings imprinted an extremely accurate mental image of their moms. They believed that ducks navigated and found their moms using this one, basic image.

But according to Antone Martinho III and Alex Kacelnik’s other recent study on duck intelligence, which was also published in Science Volume 353, ducklings employ a considerably more complex and abstract strategy than merely a basic tangible image to find their mothers.

The study discovered that ducklings can distinguish between these distinctive colors and shapes when they are exposed to a variety of moving objects with varying forms and hues. If they were shown two red moving pyramids, for example, they would imprint on and follow the red pyramids. But if the objects were different, like a green cube and a blue cylinder, the ducklings would also follow and imprint on those objects. This demonstrates that the ducks are aware of color and shape distinctions!

Let’s just say that ducks are incredibly smart from the start! Are they, however, generally and intellectually equivalent to adults? Indeed, it is intriguing for various reasons.

Ducks Use a Wide Range of Foraging Behaviors

Not only can ducks think extremely abstractly, they are also quite resourceful. The ability of ducks to identify and collect food through a variety of foraging activities is a crucial component of their total intelligence. Being omnivores, they consume a wide range of foods, including seeds, grasses, nuts, and insects and other invertebrates.

The biology department at the University of Kentucky conducted a study in 2022 that demonstrated the variety of foraging strategies used by ducks. In essence, the beaks of various duck species differ from one another, which can be useful for a variety of other foraging techniques.

Grazing, dabbling, diving, and sifting are a few of these actions. When acquiring food, this makes their beaks resemble a Swiss army knife. Ducks are situationally aware enough to modify their behavior. For instance, they might graze to gather seeds and grasses and dive to get fish or crustaceans. However, they will also dig, graze, and forage for food using their feet, wings, and flexible necks. They are quite inventive when it comes to feeding because of this.

Ducks Change Their Behavior Based on External Factors

Ducks also change their behavior in response to outside stimuli. Another study by Camille Munday and Paul Rose, which was published in Animals in 2022, looked closely at the activities of free-living ducks in a sizable park in London, UK. They discovered that a wide range of inputs and variables, including the temperature, time of day, presence of humans and other animals, and even the composition of the surrounding vegetation, significantly influenced the behavior of these creatures.

For instance, the ducks foraged less and were more cautious during rainy weather. It’s interesting to note that they appeared to have grown accustomed to seeing people at the park. Their behavior was not significantly affected by the amount of visitors. It’s interesting to note that this suggests ducks can adapt to and even feel at ease in human company. They will even return time and time again to places where people have fed them in the past.

Additionally, the study discovered that when given the freedom to roam around, feed, and engage more with their environment, wild ducks spend their time in a different way than captive ducks. It follows that they are more gregarious and energetic than previously thought by researchers.

Ducks Use a Wide Range of Vocalizations to Communicate

Ducks exhibit a variety of fascinating behaviors, including a broad spectrum of vocalizations for various contexts. They can make mating calls, warning cries, and even certain vocalizations that mothers use to communicate with their offspring. Ducks have notable sexual dimorphism, with both sexes having unique sounds for courtship and social interaction.

Furthermore, ducks interact with one another in a startling variety of ways using their beaks. They are quite social as a result. An additional unusual instance is a call made by men in mallards. The male will make a “rattling noise” in the direction of his mate by rubbing his beak along his flight feathers instead of vocalizing. It’s unclear exactly what this behavior means. But it’s probably utilized to improve the bond between partners.

Ducks Form Social Hierarchies

Ducks have social intelligence comparable to many other birds, to the point where they can create complex social hierarchies among themselves. Duck males are especially protective of their mates and belongings, as well as their territory.

For example, among themselves, Muscovy ducks maintain a rather rigid social structure known as the “pecking order.” Male muscovies protect their alleged areas with great ferocity! To intimidate and frighten other males away from their territory, they employ a variety of visual displays in addition to their previously described vocalizations. One or a few dominant males often mate and build nests with females inside each area. Many of the other men in the neighborhood are either prospective rivals or bachelors.

However, female ducks are also involved in this hierarchy. While their partners defend their territory, females assist in building and maintaining nests and watching over their young.

Furthermore, a lot of hobby farmers observe that domesticated ducks get along well with other farm animals. This suggests that ducks have enough intelligence to identify other creatures, maybe form bonds with them, determine whether or not they pose a threat, and realize that coexisting with them can help them find food and shelter.

How Smart Are Ducks Compared to Other Birds?

Ducks are generally remarkably intelligent birds, even though they aren’t quite as intelligent as birds like corvids or parrots. Soon after birth, they are able to make complex gestures, vocalize, and even think abstractly. As was already noted, ducklings don’t just visualize tangible images of their mothers; they also learn to distinguish between various shapes, objects, and colors at a very young age.

Moreover, ducks can develop close relationships with one another, especially with their partners, despite not being able to recognize themselves in a mirror like some other birds can. Moreover, ducks frequently select new partners as opposed to sticking with their original partner for life. To pass on healthy genes to their progeny, they frequently select partners based on physical appearance. They also fiercely defend their young and their territory. They will even change how they behave in response to outside influences.

Lastly, ducks are highly adept and resourceful in finding new methods to use their bodies to gain food and other resources. They can interact with their environment and graze on live food and flora using their beaks, wings, and feet. They also discussed previously that their strategies vary according to the kind of food they are looking for.

Though not as sharp as some other bird species, ducks are nonetheless quite intelligent overall. To fully and completely grasp duck intelligence, more research is definitely needed, but what is now known is tremendously instructive.