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.

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Some Thoughts About Animal Learning And Imprinting

Jackdaw Alyona

Imprinting of rescue bird is an often hotly debated topic amongst bird lovers, wildlife rehabilitators and rescuers, where voiced opinions range considerably. One extreme approach to this topic suggests that imprinted birds are principally unreleasable, and that once a bird is imprinted that this situation cannot be reversed. The other extreme opinion considers all imprinted birds as releasable and implies that these birds have similar survival chances in the wild compared to birds who have not been imprinted. However, own experiences and those of fellow rehabbers have shown that, and this should actually not be unexpected, the truth lies neither in the middle nor is it to find in one or the other extreme. To find an answer, it seems worth to explore some basic underlying processes, like imprinting, learning, conditioning and habituation.

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Blackbird Marcia

Blackbird Marcia

Admission – 28/04/2017

Blackbird Marcia came to us three weeks after been rescued by a well meaning person, who found the bird as a nestling being out of the nest on the ground. Unfortunately, a wrong diet has been fed to the bird, which led to a very poor plumage and delayed general development. Marcia suffered also from an untreated coccidia infection worsened by a generally weakened immune system due to lack of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Additional plumage damage has been inflicted by keeping the fledgling bird in a metal cage. Marcia appeared also clearly imprinted, as she has been raised by her own. Luckily, the finder didn’t release Marcia as initially intended, but only because of concerns regarding cats visiting the garden. This was the main reason why Marcia has been brought to us eventually, which saved her live and gave her another chance.

Blackbird Marcia

Although Marcia’s plumage might not look too bad at the first glance, one should not forget that most plumage related problems will manifest themselves at a later stage. Feathers and flight are the primary facets of bird rehabilitation, which are sometimes overlooked by inexperienced and even seemingly experienced rescues and rehabbers. Feather condition is as critical during the course of release for birds as is the ability to fly. Any type of damage to the feather structure will impede a bird’s ability to fly, to be waterproof and to thermoregulate. In short, birds with compromised feather condition have a low survival rate following being released. To further compound the problem, the majority of birds have only one annual moult, the first complete one usually occurring in their second year. 

Blackbird Marcia

Update – 28/05/2017

It took Marcia five months to replace all damaged and prematurely lost feathers. Marcia was unable to fly for many weeks, which would have been her death sentence in the wild. She would have been unable to protect herself from the elements, rendering her unable to maintain her body temperature and unable to forage. Marcia has spent most of the time in our sheltered soft release aviary, where she could exercise and explore freely, but where she also had the chance to find shelter and warmth when needed. 

Update – 22/09/2017

Today blackbird Marcia has been successfully released. Stay safe Marcia!

Blackbird Marcia

Imprinting – The Death Sentence For Orphaned Corvids

Puck is juvenile female Jackdaw, who has been raised and unintentionally imprinted by a well meaning person after being found as an orphan.

Once again it is the time of the year, when members of the public, and even sometimes unexperienced self proclaimed rescuers, find seemingly or truly orphaned nestling or fledgling corvids. Many of these people naively believe that it would be a good deed or potentially good fun to raise the baby bird by themselves. Others do the right thing, and bring the bird straight away to an experienced rehabber or rescue. Advice gets usually ignored and imprinting is pre programmed, which also means that the bird will not be fit enough to survive in the wild.

Although it is legal to rescue and raise orphaned wildlife, it is only legal when done with the intention to release the animal back to the wild as soon as he or she is independent, experienced enough and well adapted to have a very good chance of survival in the wild. Having said that, raising a corvid by his or her own will most definitely result in imprinting and is unlikely to achieve that.

The Importance of Company To Avoid Imprinting When Raising Corvids

The company of other birds of the same age, but also of adult birds is needed to learn the necessary social and survival skills. In fact, raising a corvid by his or her own means that this wild bird is intentionally imprinted. This can be regarded as an illegal act, but more importantly, it is unfair towards the bird.  The bird will normally have a good chance to be released back into the wild, if he or she would have been in the hands of an experienced rehabber. These birds deserve exactly this chance, and should not be regarded as objects of experimentation or to make people feel good.

Jack is a juvenile male jackdaw, who has been raised and unintentionally imprinted. He also suffers of a cross beak, which has not being corrected in time when he was younger.
Jackdaw Jack

It is a widely known fact that corvids are extremely intelligent, curious but also destructive. This means that it will not take very long for a bored lone bird to take the household apart. This often leads at some point to painful attacks on one or the other human or pet family member, who are potential competitors in the corvid’s view.  The result is that very frequently these imprinted and suddenly unwanted birds are intentionally or ‘unintentionally’ released, or brought into a wild bird rescue under the disguise of a recently rescued bird in need of help. Sadly it is also a fact, that imprinting and releasing an imprinted bird back into the wild will most likely result into the death of the bird concerned. Only a few lucky ones are found and rescued again, after being released.

Long-term Care Requirements Of Corvids

Raising corvids also often means that birds might need long-term care for a year or even longer, before they can be safely released. Long-term care of corvids requires large specialist aviaries with adequate enrichment, exposure, social interaction with wild and company corvids, space and shelter, something which can’t be done in a cage or indoors.

Previously imprinted Jackdaw Puck has been gradually transformed back into a bird capable of surviving in the wild thanks to the help of other wild and resident jackdaws.
Jackdaw Puck

For all these and some more reasons, responsible rehabbers are happily working together to exchange birds with the aim to raise them in adequate nurseries to achieve the best possible outcome for the individual concerned. Understandably, it might be tempting, seemingly easy to begin with and good fun to raise a corvid by his or her own. However, the truth is that it is simply irresponsible, selfish, and ignorant. It also clearly shows a complete lack of knowledge regarding the essential requirements a corvid and any sentient being deserves.

If you believe you are an animal lover and you are raising a lone corvid, then prove it, think twice and find an experienced rescue before it is to late. Animals are not an object nor are the anyone’s property. They are sentient beings, who have a right not to be used, abused or experimented with.