Odd Ducks

Last month, I wrote about a cat in Ireland that adopted a nest of newly hatched ducklings and raised them with her newborn kittens. While normally she might have attacked the ducklings, the surge of oxytocin following her kittens’ births meant she adopted them into her family instead.

At least, we assume it was the oxytocin that temporarily blinded the cat to the fact she was mothering ducklings.

However, I revisited the question last night while reading Roger Fouts’ unmissable 1997 biography, Next of Kin, about Washoe, a chimp who was “cross-fostered” with a human family and developed the ability to communicate through American Sign Language. In addition to documenting Washoe’s extraordinary communicative abilities, Fouts incidentally describes a boyhood experiment with cross-fostering in which he placed eggs “under our old mother farm cat.”

When the eggs hatched, Fouts was astonished “to see the cat treated the little birds like they were kittens, cuddling them for warmth and licking their feathers.”

Fouts doesn’t describe the manner in which the ducklings nestled into the adoptive cat mother so I can’t say whether the story is exactly the same as the one in Ireland reported by Animal Planet. There is this one weird, possibly inexplicable fact about the ducklings adopted by the Irish mother cat: they were found latched onto the teats of the cat as though suckling.

The sucking reflex is common to all mammals, and not, as far as I know, part of a duckling’s developmental profile. Consider the facts: that mother ducks have no nipples, that ducklings have no lips. How could it ever be that ducklings would suckle like kittens?

Ducks are a precocious species. Unlike kittens, they are born with all sensory faculties intact and are expected to feed themselves immediately. Were they imitating the kittens?

I consulted Baldasarre’s book, Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America, and found this curious observation made by another naturalist back in the 1960’s: Their feeding was so vigorous that the noise of their bills sucking the water could be heard for a considerable distance (italics mine).

It turns out that dabbling ducks suck up muddy water at one end of the bill and squeeze it out at the other. Pink ducks do the same with plankton-rich water, the water squeezed fro their bills so yet retaining the plankton through laminae at one end. That may be more information than you’d like about ducks, but the point is that they can suck and that it is a trait they are born with.

Everything I read about pet behaviour as part of my course at COAPE explains why animals behave as they do, and how to understand more about them, if only to help those who can’t figure out how to get their dog to stop barking or their cat to stop peeing on their bed. Unusually, we are allowed–even encouraged–to talk about how animals feel, using the very same language with which we’d refer to a human.

I love science–but science both depends upon and recoils from conjecture. Remember Pavlov with his dogs? Pavlov hated psychological speculation of behaviour and wanted always to believe there was no subjective state of an animal that could be compared to humans. Perhaps that is why he was so keen on salivation, an unconditioned response that can only be elicited, but not learned.

What would he have said about the ducks sucking milk from a mother cat?

Perhaps it was an instinct, like sucking water. Would it be crazy to suggest they learned to attach to the teat through observation of the kittens?

Washoe, the chimp, learned how to sign through observation of humans around her. There were no discreet trials or structured learning–she wasn’t taught to imitate like a parrot but to learn like the emotionally sensitive being that she was. Her level of communication was amazing, human-like. What should we make of that? In my opinion, quite a bit.

It is worth mentioning that there was a similar, but much earlier experiment than the one conducted with Washoe. In the 1930’s two scientists, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, reared a chimp named Gua like a child. They resisted any systematic teaching of Gua and treated it as they did their young son, Donald. The experiment was stopped abruptly, however. The chimp wasn’t learning verbal language and Donald, the Kellogg’s young son, began imitating the chimp with such precision–among other things, making food grunts at the dinner table–that his mother felt she had to abandon her efforts with Gua.

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