Australian musk ducks can imitate sounds including human speech, with one bird recorded repeatedly saying “you bloody fool”, according to a new study.
The recording of the talking duck appears to be the first comprehensively documented instance of the species being able to mimic sounds they hear, joining other birds including songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.
Ripper, a male musk duck reared in captivity at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, south west of Canberra, was recorded vocalising the sound of doors slamming shut as well as the phrase “you bloody fool”.
Researchers believe it was a phrase Ripper likely heard repeatedly from his caretaker, but are unsure how old he was when first exposed to it. He was four years old at the time of the recordings and made his vocalisations during aggressive mating displays.
Retired Australian researcher Dr Peter Fullagar first recorded Ripper more than three decades ago. But his recordings were only recently resurfaced by Prof Carel ten Cate of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who came across an obscure reference to a talking duck in a book on bird vocalisations.
Ten Cate said he was only convinced after hearing Fullagar’s recordings. “When I read it at first I thought, ‘it’s a hoax, it can’t be true.’ But it turned out to be true.”
Ripper was hatched from an egg and hand reared. Though the recording sounds like “you bloody fool”, Ten Cate said it was possible Ripper was saying “food”. “I can imagine that the caretaker would jokingly say, ‘Okay, here is your bloody food’.”
Ripper is not the only musk duck to make such impersonations. Fullagar recorded a second duck at Tidbinbilla in 2000 imitating a different duck species.
The researchers also note at least two other musk ducks with similar skills, though no recordings exist. One duck in Pensthorpe Natural Park in the UK has been heard “coughing and [mimicking] a snorting pony”, while one at Slimbridge wildfowl trust was observed reproducing “the characteristic cough of his bird keeper and also of a squeak of a turnstile”.
Dr Dominique Potvin of the University of the Sunshine Coast, who was not involved in the research, said the recorded vocalisations – such as that of an aviary door opening and closing – matched the actual sounds so closely that there was little doubt the ducks were displaying true imitation.
Potvin said the ability of musk ducks to mimic sounds was likely due to a “perfect storm” of factors. “They’ve got a little bit of variability in their call … they have close contact with their parents and can therefore be highly influenced by them early on in life,” she said.
Musk ducks are unique in that ducklings are more dependent on maternal care. The species’ courtship process is also unusual among ducks, with high-pitched vocalisations likely playing a role in male–male competition, Ten Cate said.
“Males of a certain area, they come together and then they perform their displays, including the vocalisation,” Ten Cate said. “The females go there and select males to mate with.”
The discovery changes what was previously known about the evolution of vocal language learning in birds. Ten Cate said the musk duck’s talent as a mimic suggested the skill had evolved independently in multiple groups of birds.
The research was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.