Imprinting of a young animal means it comes to recognize another animal, person, or thing as a parent or other object of habitual trust, and starts to follow that animal or person around.
Imprinting seems to be confined to a brief period after birth when there are few objects to bond to. A duck egg placed under a broody turkey will lead to a very upset mom when her offspring begins to swim in the water. Although the duck will follow the hen around, it cannot break the desire to get in that pond.
Habituation is different; a habituated animal has become used to something, so that they no longer find it unpleasant or think it is a threat. Animals learn what to fear and what not to fear. Birds quickly realize that bird feeders in a protected yard are a good place to feed, while they may always be on guard in the woods where predators may lurk.
Animals such as raccoons, bears and deer that are fed regularly by humans become habituated. If the people who have been feeding them move away, the animals will be left wondering where their free food went, and they may visit the neighbours to find it, which can lead to problems, usually for the animals.
Most wild birds and animals fear people and try to avoid us. They prefer to hide or flee. However, some birds may show a high degree of tolerance towards humans and be considered tame. The most striking example of this is the grey jay (or Canada jay) that inhabits the forests and is extremely bold around humans. Wild pigeons can become so tame that every part of your body can be a landing platform. Usually food is involved as well.
There have been cases of birds such as the wood thrush allowing humans to stroke and feed them while they incubated their eggs or while brooding their young. This fearlessness can be attributed to the strong attachment a bird has for her eggs when they are close to hatching or for her newly hatched young.
Imprinting, being habituated and tame become problems when birds and animals are kept in captivity. They may not learn the skills they need to survive on their own if they are then released. Wild animals also get into trouble when they're too comfortable around people. They are more likely to be hit by cars, and trapped or killed if they're perceived to be a “nuisance”. If young birds imprint on humans, they will be bonded to humans for life and will identify with humans rather than with their own species.
If the public finds a young animal in distress, it should be brought to the centre right away. It may be tempting to keep baby animals such as raccoons, squirrels or even fawns, as they can be very cute, but any young animal can become imprinted. They then become a lifelong responsibility. It is also important to note that having wildlife in your possession without a permit from the Ministry of Environment is against the law. You could be fined.
Come visit the North Island Wildlife Recovery centre (NIWRA) to meet some of our animal ambassadors who are unable to be released due to imprinting or injury.
Please help the wildlife in care at NIWRA by making a financial contribution on our secure website. Thank you so much for caring about wildlife!