Imprinting in Birds

provided by Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife

Imprinting in animals, namely birds, typically happens at four to six weeks old or younger. Typically, in the wild, these animals will imprint on their parental figure, oftentimes their mother when they first open their eyes. Imprinting is a form of learning in which babies fix their attention on the first object or animal with which it has visual, auditory, or tactile experience and thereafter follows that subject. This act is instinctual and vital for wildlife to learn how to hunt, walk, swim, and learn other behaviors essential to their survival.

According to a scientific article by Brian J. McCabe, the young animal learns characteristics of the object simply by being exposed to it and will subsequently recognize and selectively approach this stimulus; thus, imprinting can establish a filial (family) bond, and becomes a social cohesion crucial to survival. Although in the wild, these bonds are essential, they can also become dangerous if humans become involved. Oftentimes, an individual may attempt to raise or keep wild birds, and subsequently habituate them. If a baby becomes imprinted on a human, there is a low chance of survival in the wild, because humans cannot teach these birds appropriate behavior for their species in the wild.

Imprinting is very common in birds of prey species, and other species, such as ducks, geese, turkeys, chickens, corvids (crows, ravens, blue jays), and penguins. Precocial birds (also known as nidifugous) are born with open eyes, a well-developed down cover, and leave the nest within a day or two after hatching. These birds are the most common birds to imprint and will almost immediately begin to follow their adult figures to provide them with safety. If these species do end up orphaned or abandoned, there are many precautions wildlife facilities take to ensure the babies will not be habituated and will maintain their hunting, scavenging, and other wild instincts into adulthood.

Oftentimes, it is essential for wildlife rehabilitation facilities to ensure baby birds are placed with other members of their same species. At CROW, we can do this in several ways: we can contact other local facilities to find out if they have members of the same species; we can use our permanent animal ambassadors as foster parents; or we can attempt to raise them per protocol ourselves. Although the latter option often falls as the last resort, CROW staff will take precautionary measures to reduce the risk of young birds imprinting on humans. This includes full face veils, masks specifically designed to resemble bird species, such as vultures, and other measures such as placing sheets over their cage doors, minimizing talking, loud noises, and visual stimuli. CROW staff will also often play the species’ calls and put mirrors in the enclosures to create the illusion that the birds are surrounded by members of the same species. CROW staff will even use stuffed animals resembling their same species with fake beating hearts.

To do your part, be sure not to kidnap or abduct any birds. CROW’s “If You Care, Leave It There” campaign urges individuals to make sure that the animal, mainly baby birds, are in fact injured or completely without their parental care before taking them into a facility. If a baby bird is found alone, the finder should ensure that parents and the nest cannot be located before bringing it into a wildlife facility. Rehab facilities such as CROW have a call center that can help any individual with question of whether to bring in a wild animal.

THIS WEEK AT CROW (5/8-5/12):
There were over 100 new patients admitted to CROW this week, including an Anhinga, a Black Vulture, Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Burrowing Owls, Common Grackles, Cooper’s Hawks, an Eastern Glass Lizard, a Florida Softshell Turtle, Fish Crows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Virginia Opossums, and a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Recent releases include a Common Yellowthroat. Check out a full list of CROW’s current patients and recent releases.

Wildlife doesn’t have health insurance! Your donations help cover the costs of medical and rehabilitative care for over 5,000 patients admitted to CROW’s Wildlife Hospital each year. Want to learn more about wildlife rehabilitation? Stop by CROW’s Visitor Education Center at 3883 Sanibel Captiva Road.

About Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
Established in 1968, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is a teaching hospital saving the sick, injured and orphaned native and migratory wildlife of Southwest Florida and beyond.  Through state-of-the-art veterinary care, public education programs and an engaging visitor center, CROW works to improve the health of the environment, humans and our animals through wildlife medicine. For more information, or to plan your visit, go to If you find an animal that is in need of help, call (239) 472-3644 ext. #222.

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