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How Do Goslings Recognize Their Mothers After They Are Born?

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Geese have one of the strongest bonds to their parents of any bird, often remaining with them for a year or more. Far from being dependent upon the parent, goslings remaining with parents for an extended time become active contributors to the flock, standing guard so parents can breed or feed. The close family dynamic begins on Day No. 1, when goslings first see and imprint on their mothers.

Anything That Moves

Movement is the first thing that attracts a baby goose to his mother. In laboratory experiments conducted by the University of British Columbia as early as 1958, a gosling imprints on and follows the first thing with eyes he sees -- whether alive or not -- within the first 16 hours of life. In one experiment, a clutch of goose eggs was divided into two groups, with one group hatching beneath their natural mother and the other in an incubator attended by a scientist. After imprinting, the goslings were placed together under a large box. When the box was removed, the goslings hatched by the scientist ran to him, while the others returned to the goose that hatched them.

Using Common Senses

A new gosling's eyes pick up only movement initially, but gradually bring things into focus in the first 24 hours. Goslings imprinting on their mother during the first 13 to 16 hours hours exhibited the strongest bonds to her in laboratory experiments. A mother goose spends these first 16 hours bonding with her babies, accustoming them to her smell, the warmth of her feathers and the sound of her voice. After 16 to 24 hours, sharpened senses produce the first emotional reactions in the goslings and they will move away in alarm from any strange movement in their environment.

Moving Right Along

Following their mother as she hunts for food strengthens their recognition of her. When she gets off the nest and walk away, goslings scurry after her, following the familiar movement, scent and sound. Their efforts are regularly rewarded when she leads them to food or allows them to gather under her warm feathers. Laboratory experiments by the University of Chicago indicate that the young goslings are most deeply bonded to their mother when they have to expend effort overcoming obstacles in order to follow her, such as walking up an incline.

Everyone Else is Doing It

In addition to recognizing and imprinting on their mother, goslings recognize and imprint on their siblings. The same factors, such as movement, touch and smell, that help goslings recognize Mom bond them to their siblings. A gosling who bonded to his siblings will recognize his mother even if she was away from the nest when he initially hatched, providing there are other young that acknowledge her as the mother. The bond with parents and siblings varies from gosling to gosling, as some will leave the family unit at less than 9 months old and others will remain for more than a year.