Three experiments examined the response of mallard ducklings to conspecific distress calls. In experiment 1, a synthetic call was constructed from a single distress note, by recording it on a digital disc and then using a software routine to regularly repeat this stored note with the average period (267 ms) of the original call. Ducklings were then tested for their tendency to inhibit their own distress vocalizations in response to either this synthetic call, the original call, or a constant-frequency tone mimic; they showed a significantly stronger inhibitory response to the synthetic call than to the tone mimic, but an even stronger response to the original call. The former result indicated that the synthetic call was an effective stimulus, and suggested that some aspect of the frequency modulation found in distress notes is required to evoke the normal duckling inhibitory response. The latter result further suggested that the acoustic variability found in the original call, but not the synthetic call, may be of importance for controlling duckling behaviour. Experiment 2 demonstrated that several other minor differences between the synthetic call and original call (number of notes per call and the digital recording of the synthetic call) could not account for the difference in duckling response to these two calls. Finally, in experiment 3, two additional synthetic stimuli were constructed from the digitized note, by first excising either the initial (front-chop) or terminal (rear-chop) frequency modulation found in each distress note, then creating amplitude envelopes for these new notes similar to that of the unaltered note, and finally repeating these notes to form calls with the same note period as the original call. The ducklings tested with the synthetic normal-note call and synthetic front-chop call showed a significantly stronger inhibitory response than the ducklings tested with the synthetic rear-chop call and the tone mimic. These results indicate that the terminal descending frequency sweep is an important feature of distress notes for triggering the response of ducklings to conspecific distress calls.