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What is Imprinting?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Imprinting is a form of animal learning that occurs at a very specific stage in that animal's life. It can take a variety of forms, but the most famous type is probably filial imprinting, in which young birds learn to recognize and follow their parents. Typically, in addition to being time-sensitive, this type of learning also happens very quickly, with animals quickly absorbing the lessons they need to learn.

In addition to being famous, filial imprinting is also an excellent and easy to understand this form of learning. When young birds such as geese, chickens, and ducks hatch, they are predisposed to form a strong attachment with the first object they see, which is generally a parent, most typically the mother. As a result, the young birds will follow the mother around, learning to recognize other members of their species and picking up various important life skills, from swimming to looking for food.

In the 1930s, a researcher named Konrad Lorenz became very interested in imprinting, and he managed to prove that geese and ducks really will become attached to the first moving thing they see, whether or not it is another duck. He managed to raise a flock of geese that imprinted on him, and many photographs of Lorenz followed by a gaggle of geese can be seen in various publications to testify to his success.

Biologists who raise young birds with the intent of releasing them back into the wild tend to be very careful around their charges, as they do not want their birds to imprint on them. Instead, puppets designed to resemble adult birds are used to feed and interact with the chicks to give them a better chance at survival after release.

Many people believe that imprinting is very important to social development. Young birds deprived of a chance to imprint are often socially awkward, and they may not recognize other members of their species, or they may have difficulty engaging in basic behaviors which are common to their species. The process also appears to play a role in sexual attraction and other responses to members of the same species.

In an interesting phenomenon known as reverse imprinting or the Westermarck Effect, researchers have found that people who spend the early years of childhood together tend to be less prone to sexual attraction to each other. This could be viewed as a form of desensitization, and it has been documented in several societies, suggesting that it is a genuine psychological phenomenon, rather than a cultural one.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon953474 — On May 27, 2014

Imprinting is irreversible. Once an animal has imprinted on something, it can never be changed back and will always believe it is that animal, e.g., Lorenz and his geese.

By anon942950 — On Mar 30, 2014

Can birds lose their imprinting?

By anon329043 — On Apr 07, 2013

I remember many years ago when I lived in Los Angeles, the zoo hatched and hand-raised baby California Condors. At the time, California Condors were almost extinct, so they had to be very careful that the hatchlings didn't imprint on humans, so they could be placed in the wild. They had hand-puppets that (kind of) looked like grown-up condors that they used to feed them, and if I remember correctly, the babies never saw humans, so were successfully released.

By cloudel — On Dec 11, 2012

@healthy4life – I think that puppy imprinting is different from that of birds. Puppies don't even have their eyes open for the first week or so of their lives, so they can't imprint on anything right away by sight.

With puppies, I think imprinting is more of a period during which vital behaviors are learned. They follow the mother around and observe what she does.

I've read that imprinting occurs with puppies during the first fourteen weeks. Many people who get a puppy that is only seven or eight weeks old have the advantage of having the puppy become really attached to them.

By healthy4life — On Dec 10, 2012

What is the imprinting period for a puppy? Do they even undergo imprinting, or is this only for birds?

By rugbygirl — On May 03, 2012

I remember at a zoo once, I saw a bald eagle for whom the usual precautions had failed - he had imprinted on the humans who raised him from a baby.

It wasn't such a big problem when he was young, but it was more of an issue when he was older. The thing about bald eagles is that once they are grown, they're pretty solitary except during mating season. If they see another eagle, they will attack it.

So this particular eagle was prone to attacking humans! Although he was trained to participate in a birds of prey show, he could be flown only a lead or he would sometimes attack people in the crowd.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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