The Consequences of Imprinting

Jackdaws are probably the most common corvid species rescued and cared for in captivity, which is mainly due to the fact that they have adapted very well to an urban lifestyle and that they are often nesting in very close proximity to us humans. Jackdaw babies are also often perceived as being irresistibly cute in the eyes of many humans, which seems to persuade even completely unexperienced people to raise a jackdaw nestling or fledgling by themselves. Therefore it is not surprising that jackdaws are the most frequently imprinted corvid species. Before going into more detail about what imprinting means and what the consequences of imprinting are, it might be useful to look into some aspects of the natural behaviour and some of the normal social interactions of jackdaws.

Jackdaw in tree fern

Jackdaws are highly gregarious, generally seen in small to large flocks. Jackdaws are also very social sentient beings, who grow up with their parents and siblings. As soon as jackdaws fledge, they will often join a jackdaw fledgling creche, where siblings and unrelated youngsters will spend their time together. Whilst still being protected and cared for by their parents, juvenile birds start to explore their new world together with other birds of a similar age. They learn from their parents and each other how to communicate, how to forage, who their enemies are, who to trust, how to interact amongst each other and much more. One of many interesting social interactions of jackdaws is active food sharing, where the initiative for the transfer lies with the donor, with a number of individuals, regardless of sex and kinship. Interestingly, they also share more of a preferred than a less preferred food. Youngsters follow their parents and beg for food for quite some time, often until August. Jackdaws mate for life, and like most birds who follow this custom, they become engaged early in life, long before sexual maturity, the latter occurring in their second year. First the young males of a new brood struggle among themselves to decide their individual status, and then pairing with females begins. The jackdaw female promptly upon pairing assumes the same social position of her male. His rights and restraints become her rights and restraints. Males and females bond for life and pairs stay together within their respective flocks.

Jackdaw on fence

So what happens when a rescued jackdaw nestling or fledgling will be raised by its own? It will result without exception in some degree of imprinting on humans, the human habitat or pets. Imprinting is any kind of phase-sensitive learning occurring at a particular life stage that is rapid and apparently independent of the consequences of behaviour. However, it would be wrong to believe that imprinting as such is an entirely negative or undesired feature. Imprinting is essential for life and survival. But the crucial question is to whom the animal is being imprinted on. Birds are ‘hard-wired’ to many things in their future lives, but they also need to learn for example the art of feeding and foraging, catching prey or certain social interactions and behaviours from their parents. Songbirds can sing by default, but they do need to ‘learn the tune’ from those around them, those normally being their parents. Imprinting in general can involve more than one sense. It can involve sight, sound and smell. Furthermore, the imprinting becomes stronger when the animal is under stress, which is in no doubt a survival mechanism. Imprinting is an interaction between instinct and learning. The irreversible and species specific process of imprinting occurs only in a fixed time window. This is the so called critical period, whilst learning after this specific period of time has different and much weaker ‘imprinting’ effects. To counteract and minimise imprinting when undertaking wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, company of the same or a similar species is being regarded as essential. This means that all bird species, but in particular corvids, are best raised in groups of a similar age, at least in the crucial phase of imprinting. When these bird groups fledge, then they need to go straight into a large suitable dedicated outdoor flight and release aviary, ideally into a mixed group together with older juveniles and mature birds, to be eventually released at the right point in time together with these more experienced birds.

Juvenile jackdaw

What are the signs of a bird becoming imprinted onto humans? An imprinted bird is likely to see his or her carer, which could be a human, but also a foster bird, as his or her parent. Also, in advanced cases, an imprinted bird might not see itself as a bird anymore, but rather as a human. A jackdaw fledgling raised by its own, who normally would follow its jackdaw parents, is similarly likely to be keen to follow its human carer, because this is what their instinct will tell him or her to do. The fledgling will not want to be left alone, as normally he or she would be amongst siblings and not alone. When raised in a group, the urge to roam is usually regulatated by the dynamics of the group. A solitary fledgling without company will feel lonely and will become unrestful. A small fabric bird puppet or a mirrow may ease the problem, but is not a substitute for company of its own kind. A lone animal will become even more focussed on its only contact person he or she can interact with, which also increases the demands and pressures put upon the carer. Constant calling may lead to noise problems with neighbours, in particular when the youngster is being left by its own for longer periods of time. The bird can easily become confused and may feel isolated or even neglected, which can potentially lead to psychological problems as this dilemma will undermine its self esteem and confidence. Some birds may develop an anxiety or even depression when left alone for prolonged periods of time. Additional physical symptoms like weight loss and self mutilation, such as feather plucking, are common side effects.

Adult jackdaw on fence

Naturally, the extent of social interaction between different species like a human carer and a jackdaw will be of limited extent and quality. In our scenario the young jackdaw will not be able to acquire any jackdaw specific language skills and associated postures, and will therefore not be able to sufficiently communicate with its own kind. The bird will not understand any jackdaw specific behaviour and associated vocalisations, which includes social interactions such as warnings or other important messages. Wild birds will immediately recognise the alien character of an imprinted bird they encounter, and at the very best simply ignore and exclude the bird from their daily activities, or in a rather worse case scenario attack the stranger. Even if the language barrier would not be the main problem, social behavioural patterns cannot be learned from human parents or carers, which will cause potential issues in many ways such as when seeking a partner or finding the correct hierarchal place in the jackdaw society. Also, even the best corvid rescue will struggle to provide 100 % natural food sources to its rescue birds. The ‘art of foraging’ needs to be learned from experienced birds, which are usually parents, siblings and other jackdaws of their flock.

Juvenile jackdaw

To fully understand the implications of raising a bird in isolation and without adequate company of their own kind, it might be useful to envisage the jackdaw youngster as being a human child, or perhaps more precisely as being a one year old toddler. This may help to get a better understanding of the situation. So, what is going to happen to our young toddler, or imprinted jackdaw, when being released prematurely into the wild? Just to clarify, before we continue, it is illegal to release a native rescued bird back into the wild, who is not in perfect health and not capable of surviving in the wild, which includes the release of imprinted birds, birds released during the wrong time of the year or into an unsuitable environment. And still, imprinted birds are frequently intentionally and unintentionally released, for a number of unacceptable reasons. Releasing an imprinted bird, even temporarily for some sort of daily exercise, means effectively putting a human toddler unsupervised onto a busy road, and leaving this toddler to its own devices. A human toddler of this age is starting to feed itself, assuming of course that suitable food is being provided by its parents. This means that this toddler will not find food or a drink by its own, although he or she might put all sorts of not necessarily healthy things into its mouth. A human toddler is able to cruise or move around on its feet while holding onto things, but he or she will not necessarily stop in front of a flight of stairs. A toddler can say one or two words, and “Mama” and “Dada” become specific name for parents, but there is no guarantee that a non-related person will understand what this toddler says or means. A toddler can point at objects he or she wants in order to get the parents attention, gestures which can be easily misunderstood or ignored by others as well. So it becomes quickly very obvious, if the parents are not about, these impressive but otherwise also very limited skills are not really of any help for a toddler left alone on a busy road. So the answer to this rather rethorical question or fictional comparison, how a toddler would do by its own, is usually pretty clear to everyone. The toddler would not do very well at all!

Juvenile jackdaw

Unsurprisingly, the same applies to an imprinted jackdaw when being released. The bird would not know who he or she really is and where he or she belongs to. The jackdaw would not have any local knowledge, as the bird is no familiar with the localities. He or she would not know where his or her parents are and how to get home. The bird may try to follow other birds, if lucky enough he or she might try to join a flock of jackdaws from the neighbourhood. However, as the animal cannot talk the jackdaw language and does not understand what is going on, the bird will be unable to activly and succesfully integrate into the wild jackdaw community, even if given the chance. An imprinted bird does not know how to forage in the wild, where to find shelter, where and when to hide. However, the bird does remember his or her human carer as someone who has reliably provided food and shelter in the past. Therefore, and this is not really coming as a surprise, this bird will at least to some degree seek human contact to obtain food, to find shelter and to interact socially. This frequently involves people in the neighbourhood near the release site, but sometimes also public places like open air shopping centres or places where food is being sold. Whilst perhaps a very limited number of people would find it entertaining and amusing, when a seemingly wild jackdaw lands on their head or shoulder, the majority of people is unlikely to get truly excited about this kind of encounter. The fun usually stops completly when children get involved in this kind of interaction, and suddenly this friendly and cute bird is being seen as a nuisance or even as a danger to the child in particular and to public health and safety in general. This is usually the time when certain institutions will become involved, and at that point, often enough the story will not have a happy ending at all for the bird concerned.

Adult jackdaw

Even if an imprinted bird is being kept as a pet under ideal conditions, as a member of a human family or household, corvids will not necessarily make an easy or good family pet, in particular not when the bird matures. For example, an imprinted bird will still feel the urge to find a partner. The animal will wanting to bond with their carer, or its partner, which potentially may cause further, ocassionally painful issues. Some birds may become obsessive or defensive, and may make their perceived ‘rights’ very clear, vocally and physically. This can easily lead to confrontation with other family members, guests or pets, directed principally towards anyone who challenges the claimed position in the human flock. Jackdaws are sentient beings with their own individual personality. They want to be loved and they can become jellous. They can get excited or angry, again not unlike a human being. And also similar to humans, jackdaws need to be mentally occupied. Their enormous natural curiosity needs to be satisfied, otherwise they will become bored, lethargic, disruptive or destructive.

Juvenile jackdaw

So, what can be done when the bird is already imprinted? The solutions are not too complex. Firstly, the carer could make himself or herself available for the job as a fulltime carer of the bird, according to the individual needs of the animal concerned – as a parent, as a friend and as a potential partner, and by providing the social family environment the bird is desiring.

Then there is the option to find jackdaw company for the bird concerned and to provide him or her with a suitable place to live, which needs to be a large outdoor flight aviary or an indoor flight room. There are lots of wildlife rescues out there, who care for disabled or imprinted unreleasable birds, who would be more than grateful, when a suitable home for one or the other unreleasable rescue bird is being offered.

The next option would be to talk to an experienced corvid friendly rescue or sanctuary, who would be willing to take over the care of the imprinted bird. This bird rescue or sanctuary needs to be equipped for longterm care, as an imprinted bird needs to stay in captivity for at least one or possibly more years, or potentially for ever, as imprinting is only partly reversible. However, chances are rapidly decreasing the longer a bird is being kept in isolation.

Adult jackdaw

And now finally – the best option. Do not imprint the rescue bird in the first instance! The whole issue of imprinting is avoidable, and is a costly manmade problem. Costly for the bird, and costly for the rescue or sanctuary, which is being asked to fix the problem. Although nature is definitely not a paradise, it is the place where the rescued bird belongs to. To rescue a bird in need of help is honourable and the right thing to do, but the aim should always be to give the bird the best possible second chance and a head start, which should enable him or her to survive the cruel world called ‘nature’. If there is an option available of getting a rescue bird to an experienced and suitably equipped bird rescue, then this certainly would be in the best interest of the bird concerned and what the bird would truly deserve.

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