“You bloody idiot!”
As an Australian living in Sydney with access to a car, I have cried this expression many times in my life. When someone forgets to use the blinker or apply the brakes? You bloody idiot is a common refrain. Others might have yelled at me, too. The one place I wouldn’t expect to hear, though, is the duck pond.
How wrong I was.
In a new search, Published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on MondayIn this study, researchers describe the vocal mimicry produced by an Australian type of waterfowl known as the musk duck. The paper includes descriptions of a male musk duck, known as the Ripper, that was bred by hand near the Australian capital, Canberra. The ripper is a type of windbag and has been shown to imitate human voices, such as closing a door and even human words.
Researchers recorded Reaper’s exciting acoustic simulation in July 1987, when he was just 4 years old. The Little Ripper could explode and in his angry state, he was regretting his handler – 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 Jane Bessette said, “I’m scared.”
We feel for you, Jane.
You can hear Ripper below, but if the embed doesn’t work, trust me, You need to download and listen to this (5.9 MB. wav file).
It’s not just a Ripper either. The second duck (and the Ripper’s friend) learned to imitate the sounds of a different species of duck, the Pacific black duck. The researchers also noted the reported sounds of UK musk ducks, which have learned to imitate coughing, the turnstile gate and the sounds of snoring foals that live nearby. Ducks making horse sounds on your 2021 bingo card? I’m the neighbor.
Imitation of sounds is not unprecedented in the animal kingdom and Australians are well aware of this phenomenon. Another native Australian bird, the lyre, was made famous by David Attenborough for its imitation Shutter sounds, car alarms, disheartening, even a chainsaw.
So why would a musky duck swear at you? It’s an interesting question, and the researchers say it requires more comprehensive and systematic study. They note that vocal learning “shows a clear similarity” to other bird species – particularly songbirds and parrots – and the brain structure of the musk duck is similar to these two mouth-feeding birds.
The hand-bred nature of the Ripper likely plays a large part. Ducks are known to be imposing and usually spend a significant amount of time in the care of their mother, which makes the hand-reared musk duck likely to form a strong association with human care. Maybe the acting Reaper was a bit too profuse and that’s how we ended up here. With ducks we swear.
Hopefully in the future musk ducks won’t learn anything that might be a problem or we might have The milkshake duck is so real on our hands.