In psychobiology, imprinting is a form of learning in which a very young animal fixes its attention on the first object with which it has visual, auditory, or tactile experience and thereafter follows that object. In nature the object is almost invariably a parent; in experiments, other animals and inanimate objects have been used.
In 1873, D. A. Spalding discovered that baby chicks tend to follow the first moving object that they see. This tendency seemed to exist either at birth already, or very shortly after hatching. Spalding speculated that the tendency to follow was probably innate, since it helped the chicks to survive. Because the mother hen was almost always the first moving object encountered, the instinctive “following response” had the survival value of keeping the baby chicks in the immediate vicinity of the hen.
To test his hypothesis, Spalding covered the chicks’ heads with hoods immediately after they were hatched, before they had a chance to open their eyes. When the hoods were removed a few hours later, the chicks followed the first object that crossed their field of vision, regardless of what the object was. This demonstrated that the response was not learned, since experience could not have played a role.
In 1937 Konrad Lorenz published a paper, describing the same “following response” in ducklings and goslings. On one occasion Lorenz made certain that he would be the first moving object that a number of ducklings saw. As a result, these ducklings proceeded to follow “Mama” Lorenz everywhere he went, even swimming. It seemed that the first object to move past these ducklings was “stamped into” the animals’ brains as the object to be followed. Lorenz called this stamping-in phenomenon imprinting.
This unique characteristic was the source of great childhood pleasure to ‘t Hart, who describes a trick his father used to play on the farm poultry. Whenever the opportunity arose, he would switch the eggs of a brooding duck with those of a brooding hen, later to enjoy the anxious antics of the hen when her brood takes to the water, and on the other hand the futile efforts of the duck to coax her hatchlings into the duck pond.
Imprinting may perhaps be the only factor between the lesser white-fronted goose and extinction. These very rare geese once hatched all over Lapland. Unfortunately, each year their migratory route would bring them to the Black and Caspian Seas where hunters awaited them, ruthlessly hunting them to a threatened extermination. In an effort to save the species, Christian Moullec and his wife Paolo bought some thirty eggs and got the geese imprinted on themselves and on their ultralight aircraft. Because the geese followed the aircraft, the Moullecs could lead the geese to a nature reserve in Germany.
For more than twenty years now, Moullec has been raising orphaned geese and flying alongside them in his humble aircraft, providing visitors with the opportunity to fly alongside the birds and experience the awe and wonder that he knows so well – and that’s how he funds his own project.