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Right now the irrigation ditches and ponds have lots and lots of mallard ducklings, sometimes multiple families to a single pond. The way to tell is that there will be too many ducklings for one family in a pond, and they will sort of be grouped up.

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I have read that mother ducks will not tolerate strange ducklings around their own, but how do they tell the difference between their own ducklings and unrelated ones?

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Most of the birds identify their young by calls. This is a survival trait in birds which allows them to locate their young when they are out of sight. Same applies for ducks as well. As far as I know, the imprinting mechanism (can lead to some hilarious behaviour) that works for the ducklings doesn't have a big effect on the parent to child relationship. In animals, the smell and calls play a major role in parents recognising their offsprings.

  • Smell plays a major role for mammals, but most birds don't have sense of smell at all, so they need to rely on sight and hearing. – Pere Jun 24 '18 at 8:32

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