“You bloody fool!”
As an Aussie living in Sydney with access to a motor vehicle, I’ve screamed that expression plenty of times in my life. When someone forgets to use the blinker or slams on the brakes? You bloody fool is a common refrain. Others have probably screamed it at me, too. The one place I wouldn’t expect to hear it, though, is at a duck pond.
How wrong I was.
In new research, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on Monday, researchers describe the vocal imitations produced by an Australian species of waterfowl known as the musk duck. The paper includes descriptions of a male musk duck, known as Ripper, hand-reared near Australia’s capital city of Canberra. Ripper is a bit of a windbag and has been shown to mimic human sounds, like a door slamming, and even human words.
Researchers recorded Ripper’s rousing vocal mimicry back in July 1987, when he was just 4 years old. The fledgling Ripper could be riled up and in his enraged state, he’d growl at his handlers — in a human voice.
The audio is, admittedly, quite creepy, but you have to hear it to believe it. After listening to the recording, CNET Entertainment Editor Jen Bisset said, “I’m scared.”
We feel you, Jen.
You can hear Ripper below, but if the embed isn’t working, trust me, you need to download and listen to this (5.9MB .wav file).
It’s not just Ripper, either. A second duck (and friend of Ripper, the study notes) learnt to imitate the sounds of a different species of duck, the Pacific black duck. The researchers also note the reported vocalizations of a musk duck in the UK, which learned to mimic coughing, a turnstile and the sounds of a snorting pony that lived next door. Ducks making horse sounds on your 2021 bingo card? Me neigh-ther.
Mimicking vocalisations is not unheard of in the animal kingdom and Australians are quite familiar with the phenomenon. Another native Australian bird, the lyrebird, has been famously shown by the great David Attenborough to mimic the sounds of a camera shutter, car alarms and, dishearteningly, even a chainsaw.
So why can the musk duck swear at you? It’s an interesting question and one the researchers say requires more extensive and systematic study. They note the vocal learning “shows clear parallels” with other species of bird, particularly songbirds and parrots, and the structure of the brain in the musk duck is similar to those two mouthy fliers.
The hand-reared nature of Ripper likely plays a big role in it. The ducks are known to imprint and usually spend a long time being cared for by their mother, which makes it all the more likely a hand-reared musk duck will form a strong attachment to a human caretaker. Ripper’s caretaker might have been a little exuberant in their expressions and that’s how we ended up here. With ducks swearing at us.
Here’s hoping future musk ducks don’t learn anything too problematic or we might have a very real milkshake duck on our hands.