By Sophie Lavin
This study investigated whether ducks can be trained, using the work of Pavlov and Skinner. It turned out ducks are not as stupid as they look.
Ivan Pavlov’s work on the digestive system of dogs led him to Classical Conditioning. He predicted that a stimulus could become associated with food and cause salivation if a particular stimulus in the dog’s surroundings was present when the dog was given food. In his initial experiments, Pavlov presented a stimulus (rang a bell) and then gave the dog food; after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the stimulus.
BF Skinner was a behaviourist who considered free will an illusion and human action dependent on the consequences of previous actions. If the response is bad, it is unlikely the action will be repeated; but if it is good, the action will become more probable. This is reinforcement, and making use of it is Operant Conditioning. Skinner called his pigeons ‘superstitious’ because, by feeding them using a machine that dispensed food at regular intervals no matter what the birds did, he noticed that they associated the food with whatever chance actions they were doing when it was delivered. The pigeons continued to perform the actions, hoping for more food.
This study set out to find out whether ducks are as clever as dogs or pigeons. They don’t seem it.
Hypothesis: that ducks can be trained to respond to the sound of a bell.
The study used direct observation in a rural laboratory setting.
Participants were an opportunity sample of five Indian Runner Ducklings of indeterminate sex. They were introduced to the laboratory at two weeks old and at the time of the experiment they were 20 weeks old.
Ducks and a shed. A bell. Duck food. Probably a fox, too.
For 18 weeks, every time food or water was provided for the participants, a bell was rung. Food was always provided in the shed. After 6 weeks the participants were allowed to play on the pond during the day but herded back into the shed at night, in case the fox introduced an extraneous variable. At 20 weeks the experimenter attempted to put the participants in the shed by ringing the bell.
Participants were kept safe from the fox, fed and allowed to play on the pond.
Putting the Ducks Away.
 It’s beginning to look like they are all male (no eggs)
Ducks put themselves into the shed upon hearing the bell six times out of seven (or 86%).
The results showed that the participants were indeed smarter than they looked. They had been conditioned to run into the shed on the sound of the bell. On Thursday, the experimenter was stuck on a delayed train home from university, and the test was administered by an adolescent research assistant. This young helper rarely does any chores around the laboratory, and had never fed the ducks. Therefore the surprise result was that the participants appeared to have been subject to operant conditioning. They responded to the bell only when they believed that the bell might lead to being fed. They were not Pavlov’s Ducks, they were Skinner’s Superstitious Ducks.