Oxford researchers' defence of their 'ducks like water' study

The Daily Star recently reported "A Duckin' Waste of £300,000".  A DEFRA-funded study showed that rain, or a nice shower, is good for ducks.  Susie Squire, TPA Campaign Manager, criticised the spending, saying that "It is common sense that ducks like rain and water. The last thing the government should be allocating scarce resources to is this sort of nonsense."


The Guardian reports a response from the academics who carried out the study:


"Marian Stamp Dawkins, professor of animal behaviour at Oxford, said many would have expected the ducks to spend most of their time swimming in the pond. In fact, they seemed to prefer the shower to the pond, suggesting they were not very bothered about swimming."


If you dig up the research, written up in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, then it appears that argument is a bit of a stretch (you can read the paper here, click on "PDF (319K)" to get the full article).  The abstract describes the central finding of the research, which studied the behaviour of 120 Cherry Valley Pekin strain ducklings:


"The results showed that without the opportunity to at least dip their heads and splash their feathers with water, ducks were unable to keep their eyes, nostrils and feathers fully clean.  Importantly, there was no difference in the time spent bathing from the bath, through or shower, indicating resources were equivalent in their provision of bathing water.  Very little time, however, was spent showing bathing movements at the nipples.  Only ducks in the nipple-only group showed 'compensatory rebound' when finally given access to water in a bath, indicating previous bathing deprivation.  There was no rebound in groups reared with a trough or shower, again indicating that the trough and shower were equivalent to the bath in its provision of bathing water.  When given chance, the ducks preferred to rest and drink-dabble with the shower, and bathe with the bath; the shower was intermediate to the trough.  Little time was spent with the nipples when the ducks were given access to other water sources and little time was spent swimming in the bath."


So, what the study has actually discovered is that ducks like water, for reasons beside drinking, and don't really care what form it comes in so long as they can wash their face with it.  There isn't any particular preference for the shower.  If farmers had gone on the simple intuition of Anthony Rew, Devon chairman of the National Farmers' Union, that "ducks like water", then they wouldn't have gone far wrong, DEFRA could have left them alone and £300,000 could have remained in taxpayers' pockets.

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