Ducks Are Far Smarter Than Scientists Ever Realized, Says New Study

The common duck is far smarter than scientists previously thought, according to a new study out of Oxford. The study, published last Thursday in the journal Science, might have you rethinking calling your less-than bright best friend a “bird brain.”

What is most interesting about the latest duck study conducted at Oxford is that human scientists in the past haven’t been able to realize just how smart birds — like ordinary ducks — are, because of the human brain itself. The fact of the matter is, humans have simply been performing the wrong sorts of experiments on animals like ducks, and as a result, weren’t getting much in the way of credible data.

ducks capable of abstract thought
[Photo by Claire Greenway/Getty Images]
But now that has all changed. Antone Martinho III and Alex Kacelnik from the University of Oxford have come up with an experiment that definitively displays just how smart ducks and other birds are. In the revolutionary experiment, the two researchers took hour-old ducks and presented them with two different moving objects. In some of the experiments, the objects were the same shape and/or color, and in some of the experiments, the objects were different. After displaying the original two objects to the ducks, another set of objects were presented to the day-old ducks. As a result, the ducks were “more inclined” to move in the direction of the objects that most closely represented the original shapes in either color or shapes. All in all, 47 different ducklings were utilized in the experiment.

So, what’s the big deal, you might ask? Some ducks moved towards something they recognized?

Well, that’s part of it, but that’s not all. According to the researchers at the University of Oxford, young ducks go through a period of rapid learning — called imprinting — that assists them in recognizing their own mothers. As a result of the duck study, ducklings are able to differentiate between different colors and shapes at only a single day old. This new information means, according to the researchers, that abstract recognition abilities like those that ducks exhibit are “far more necessary to a wider variety of animals’ survival than we previously thought.”

Dr. Martinho elaborated on that concept.

“Previously we’ve seen this ability in things like primates and in parrots and in crows – animals that we generally think of as quite intelligent. But by seeing it in ducklings, which are only distantly related to parrots and crows, that makes the suggestion that probably a wide variety of vertebrates are going to have this ability.”

Birds like ducks have long plagued mankind with a great deal of mysteries. From their ability to fly in the first place, inspiring humans for centuries to attempt and finally succeed in building machines to take us into the air and beyond, to their migratory patterns that ultimately seem to be based on magnetic fields surrounding the Earth.

ducks capable of abstract thought
[Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]
Ducks themselves are some of the most common birds on Earth, existing on even such far reaching areas of the planet as sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia and the Auckland Islands as well as remote places like Hawaii, New Zealand, and Kerguelen. While we here in the United States think of ducks and the sound they make — the “quack” — as synonymous, the truth is that more ducks than not do not “quack.” Worldwide, ducks make a vast array of different sounds, including yodels, grunts, and whistles. In the wild, the common North American duck can have an average lifespan of around 20 years.

[Feature Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images]