Can ducks do math?
September 1, 2018 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Does a mother duck know if one of her babies is missing? If so, how? Can ducks count? Has anyone researched this?
posted by nebulawindphone to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Baby birds can do arithmetic, say researchers in Italy. This reddit thread, specifically about mother ducks keeping track of ducklings, offers some ideas, including subitizing and Grandmother Theory (the mothers recognize each duckling individually rather than counting them). This wildlife rehabilitation site asserts the mothers cannot count, and are easily frightened off, which leads to abandoned ducklings.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:25 PM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have no idea if ducks count, but I can say unequivocally after watching a mother duck and her ducklings at a lake house all summer, she knows when one is either missing or fallen behind. I do not know how but I suspect instinct or the same way when I looked for my three kids, I knew if one wasn't there not because I only counted two, but because I recognized that one of them, usually the blond one, wasn't where he was supposed to be.

I am not a trained professional in ducks or any animal for that matter, just a long summer observer. Part of my relaxing morning routine was sitting on the dock watching the mother and her ducklings. They grow fast too btw.
posted by AugustWest at 7:27 PM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ducks lose and abandon ducklings all the time. In many species, social crèching behavior occurs, wherein parts of a brood that are lost or abandoned can be facultatively adopted by unrelated parents.

Parental investment and brood care, including mechansisms and stereotypical behaviors is a massive area of avian research, and the literature just on ducks would fill many volumes. I am a biologist but not your ornithologist. My feeling is that It is very hard to determine if a duck is unaware that they have lost a duckling, or if they just don’t care/intended to. Most good (non-human) ethology of the past century or so is ultimately behaviorist in poise, and hence what a duck ‘knows’ is not really the right question to ask, from the perspective of most researchers.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:44 PM on September 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

No they aren't great at this. It's super easy to add a few babies to a brood and the hen won't notice. They also loose a lot of ducklings and if they see one in danger will do a lot to save it but if it just disappears they tend to carry on as normal. Birds in general tend to be very smart or very dumb and most ducks fall into the latter category.
posted by fshgrl at 9:42 PM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Have you owned ducks? I have and I really don't think they are great at knowing how many ducklings they have at all.
posted by fshgrl at 9:02 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

To answer your question more generally, a lot of work has been done on the mathematical abilities of a wide range of animals, including many birds, though I can’t recall any about ducks in particular (and googling it is difficult due to Donald Duck, argh). Anyway, a great read on the topic of human and animal numerical abilities is “The number sense” by Stanislas Dehaene.
posted by karbonokapi at 3:07 AM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not a duck, but I saw a Korean nature show a few weeks ago when they set up cameras and watched cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests. The cuckoos will knock one egg out of the nest before laying theirs, indicating that nest mother would notice an additional egg upon her return to the nest.
posted by amicamentis at 12:41 PM on September 4, 2018

Not ducks but I have very broody hens and have watched several clutches grow up. The moms only seem to care when they hear distress peeps from the chicks. If the chick is missing but isn't peeping, they seem to go on their way w/o concern for its presence. If it peeps in distress, the whole flock goes a little nuts until the peeping stops.
posted by 10ch at 3:53 PM on September 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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