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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

The Power of Imprinting

It’s been almost four years now, since Gwendolyn hen was a chick, raised in our human house during a nasty cold spring, thus imprinted with me as her mother hen.

She still climbs onto my lap whenever I perch on the bench beside the stock tank. She’ll accept a snuggle under my jacket, holds still for several minutes—a rare event in the life of most chickens—then she gets bored and hops off to peck around in the yard for the rest of the morning.

Such imprinting is not unique to birds. When First Turkey was a chick, hunting grasshoppers with us convinced her to eat and live, and she, too, became imprinted on humans. Every time we went into the back yard, she would run to us with a happy bark.

I didn’t realize the power of imprinting on humans until Husband Don and I experienced something like this when we moved to a large apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. The apartment had a large kitchen—too large. My being a less than perfect cook, the floor got stickier and stickier. Worse, the garbage seemed to multiply by spontaneous generation.

Tempers flared and accusations flew: “Why aren’t you taking out the garbage?” I asked sternly. “And why aren’t you mopping the floor?” Don retorted. We answered in unison: “Because that’s man’s/woman’s work.”

Oh! The light dawned. We had been imprinted with different childhood experiences. My dad always did both garbage and floors. Don’s mother did those chores.

True—people are not chickens, but I suspect that patterns of behavioral experience in childhood can define what is natural and acceptable to us humans, as it does with birds.
Our kitchen experience makes me wonder what we do to young human minds with a steady diet of media violence.

Psychologists have defined imprinting as “phase-sensitive learning,” which can be “rapid and independent of consequences” according to Wikipedia. Another phrase is “filial imprinting,” in which the young learn behavior from their parents. We now accept that fact for some animals, also.

Results are mixed in recent studies of the effect of media violence on youth. This is not surprising, given that case study results are hard to make from correlative evidence.

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