Scientists in Australia discover a duck species that can mimic human speech

Updated: Sep 21

“When I read it at first I thought, ‘it’s a hoax, it can’t be true.’ But it turned out to be true.” -- Prof Carel ten Cate of Leiden University in the Netherlands

By Mike Prince from Bangalore, India - Musk Duck, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63635692

According to a new study, Australian musk ducks can replicate noises such as human speech, with one bird repeatedly saying "you bloody fool."


The talking duck's recording looks to be the first thoroughly documented example of the species' ability to mimic noises it hears, joining other birds such as parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds.


Ripper, a male musk duck raised in captivity at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in the south-west of Canberra, was captured vocalizing the sound of doors slamming shut and the phrase "you bloody fool."



Researchers believe it was a phrase Ripper heard from his caretaker several times, but they don't know how old he was when he first heard it. At the time of the recordings, he was four years old and made his vocalizations during aggressive mating displays.


Dr. Peter Fullagar, a retired Australian researcher, was the first to chronicle Ripper more than three decades ago. Prof Carel ten Cate of Leiden University in the Netherlands recently rediscovered his recordings after stumbling across an obscure mention to a talking duck in a book on bird vocalizations.


Ten Cate claimed that it was only after hearing Fullagar's recordings that he was convinced. “At first, I thought, 'It's a hoax, it can't be true.' But it turned out to be true.”

Source: Royal Society Publishing
Figure: (a) Broadband and (b) narrowband sonograms of the ‘you bloody foo…’ sound produced by Ripper (electronic supplementary material, SI 4). (c) A human male voice producing the same utterence; (d)–(g) power spectra of the indicated parts (red) of Ripper's vocalization. Note the similarities in the fundamentals of the harmonic spectra. (h) Three subsequent vocalizations showing the stereotyped nature and regularity in interval duration.

Ripper was hatched from an egg and raised by hand. Despite the fact that the recording sounds like "you bloody fool," Ten Cate believes Ripper was saying "food." “I imagine the caretaker jokingly would, ‘Okay, here is your bloody food.'”


Ripper isn't the only musk duck who impersonates other ducks. In 2000, Fullagar discovered a second duck mimicking a different duck species near Tidbinbilla.


There are at least two other musk ducks with similar abilities, according to the researchers, however no recordings exist. One duck in the UK's Pensthorpe Natural Park has been reported "coughing and [mimicking] a snorting pony," while another at the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust has been observed imitating his bird keeper's trademark cough as well as a turnstile squeak.


The recorded vocalizations – such as those of an aviary door opening and closing – matched the actual sounds so well, said Dr Dominique Potvin of the University of the Sunshine Coast, who was not involved in the research, that there was little doubt the ducks were demonstrating true imitation.


Potvin believes that musk ducks' capacity to replicate sounds is the result of a "perfect storm" of variables. “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 explained.


Musk ducklings are unusual in that they are more reliant on parental care. According to Ten Cate, the species' courtship behavior is unique among ducks, with high-pitched vocalizations possibly having a part in male–male competition.


The discovery alters what was previously thought to be true regarding the evolution of bird vocal language learning. The musk duck's ability to imitate demonstrated that the skill had evolved separately in several groups of birds, according to Ten Cate.


Source: The Royal Society Publishing - Vocal imitations and production learning by Australian musk ducks (Biziura lobata)

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