The musk duck can learn to imitate human voices.
Getty / Andrew Haysom
“You damn fool!”
As an Australian living in Sydney with access to a motor vehicle, I have shouted this phrase many times in my life. What if someone forgets the indicator or hits the brakes? You bloody fool is a common refrain. Others probably yelled it to me too. However, the only place I wouldn’t expect it is by a duck pond.
How wrong I was
In a new study published Monday in the Royal Society B’s journal Philosophical Transactions, researchers describe the vocal imitations of an Australian waterfowl known as the musk duck. The paper includes descriptions of a male musk duck known as the ripper that was hand-reared near the Australian capital of Canberra. Ripper is a bit of a cream puff and has been shown to mimic human noises, like a door slamming and even human words.
From the laboratory to your inbox. Receive the latest scientific stories from CNET every week.
Researchers recorded Ripper’s rousing vocal mimicry back in July 1987 when he was just 4 years old. The young Ripper might be upset and in his angry state he would growl at his carers – in a human voice.
The sound is admittedly pretty 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, Jens.
You can hear Ripper below, but if the embed doesn’t work, believe 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, according to study notes) learned to mimic the sounds of another species of duck, the Pacific black duck. Researchers also note the reported sounds of a musk duck in the UK that has learned to mimic a cough, a turnstile, and the sounds of a snorting pony that lived next door. Ducks making horse noises on your bingo card in 2021? Me on the side.
Mimicking sounds is not uncommon in the animal kingdom and Australians are quite familiar with the phenomenon. Another native Australian bird, the lyre bird, was featured famously by the great David Attenborough for mimicking the sounds of a camera shutter, car alarm and disheartening even a chainsaw.
So why can the musk duck curse you? It’s an interesting question, and the researchers say that a more thorough and systematic study is needed. They find that vocal learning shows “clear parallels” with other bird species – particularly songbirds and parrots – and the structure of the musk duck’s brain resembles these two mouth-dead fliers.
Ripper’s hand-raised nature likely plays a big part in this. Known for their imprinting, the ducks are typically long tended by their mother, which makes it all the more likely that a hand-reared musk duck would form a strong bond with a human caretaker. Ripper’s caretaker may have been a little exuberant in their expressions and that’s how we ended up here. With ducks insulting us.
We hope that future musk ducks will not learn anything too problematic or that we will have a very real milkshake duck on our hands.