The ducklings are exactly 7 weeks old today. To me they seem equivalent to humans in their mid-teens; they are eating all the time, their voices are changing, they want to assert their independence, and are increasingly interested in the world outside our gates. Soon, they will be able to fly and go places on their own – like a 17 year old finally getting their driving licence!
They’ve also learned all kinds of things, including how to manipulate us to do what they want. For instance, they know that coming to our door and looking cute will get them food or treats. Today I decided to see if I could train them to ask for frozen peas, since this is their favourite treat. I handed out peas to a duck if he/she touched my shoes with his/her bill. If they didn’t touch my shoe but just looked at me, I didn’t give them anything. You cannot imagine how quickly they learned what to do – it took maybe 15 seconds!
Soon, any duck who tried to come close to peck on my shoe got quickly pecked at or shoved aside by another duck who wanted first dibs! At the end of the 3 or 4 minute feeding session during which I stood at the edge of the pond and fed them in the water, my shoes were damp from their dribbly bills. Shows how quickly a duck learns when it’s sufficiently motivated. They’ve even taken to pulling at my trouser leg or shoe strings when they are really hungry – now that they realise touching me gets attention!
The psychologist B. F. Skinner is well known to have taught pigeons to play ping pong using a similar reward method (i.e. food). He even developed a missile guidance system during WWII which had pigeons pecking at targets on screens installed in actual missile heads. Not surprisingly, even though his simulation/demonstration was a great success, the project lost support.