The Australian musk duck, Ripper has mastered the art of mimicry and could even swear at you. You have to hear it to believe it.
“You bloody idiot!”
As an Australian living in Sydney with no motor vehicle access, I’ve heard that expression shouted out quite a few times in my life. When someone forgets to use the blinker or slams on the brake? You bloody fool is a common refrain. Others have probably yelled at me too. One place I wouldn’t expect to hear it, though, is in a duck pond.
How wrong was I?
In new research published Monday in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers describe the vocal mimicry produced by an Australian species of waterfowl known as the musk duck. In case you’re wondering, this has nothing to do with Elon Musk. The paper includes a description of a male musk duck, known as a ripper, hand-reared near Australia’s capital, Canberra. The ripper is a bit of a windbag and has been shown to mimic human sounds, such as slamming a door and even human words.
Researchers recorded Ripper’s loud vocal mimicry in July 1987, when he was just 4 years old. The budding Ripper could flare up and, in his angry state, he would growl at his masters – in a human voice.
The audio, of course, is scary enough, but you have to hear it to believe it. After listening to the recording, Nerdshala Entertainment Editor Jane Bissett said, “I’m scared.”
We feel you, Jane.
You can listen to the ripper below, but if the embed isn’t working, trust me, you need to download and listen to it (5.9MB .wav file).
It’s not just Ripper. A second duck (and Ripper’s friend, the study notes) learned to imitate the sounds of a different species of duck, the Pacific black duck. The researchers also looked at the perceived vocalizations of a musk duck in the UK, which learned to cough, turnstile and mimic the sounds of a sniffing pony living next door. Are ducks making horse sounds on your 2021 bingo card? Neighbor to me
Vowel mimicry 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 sound of a camera shutter, car alarms and, disappointingly, even a chainsaw.
So why might musk ducks swear by you? It’s an interesting question and the researchers say it requires a more comprehensive and systematic study. They note vocal learning “shows clear similarities” with other species of birds – particularly songbirds and parrots – and that the brain structure in musk ducks is similar to those of two-faced fliers.
The hand-reared nature of the Ripper plays a big part in this. Ducks are known to print and usually spend a long time being cared for by their mother, making it more likely that hand-reared musk ducks will form a strong attachment to a human caregiver. The Ripper’s caretakers must have been a little enthusiastic in their expressions and that’s how we ended up here. Swear upon us with the ducks.
Here’s hoping musk ducks don’t learn anything problematic in the future or we may have a very real milkshake duck on our hands.