Australian Ducks Show They Can Mimic Human Speech by Picking up Swearing: ‘You Bloody Fool!’
The first documented instance of ducks being able to mimic sounds has researchers reviewing the evolution of vocal language learning in birds.
The musk duck is a highly aquatic, stiff-tailed duck native to southern Australia. It is the only living member of the genus Biziura. An extinct relative, the New Zealand musk duck or de Lautour’s duck, once occurred on New Zealand, but is only known from prehistoric subfossil bones. It was about 8% longer than the living species, with a particularly large head.
Australian musk ducks just joined the — which includes parrots, dolphins, elephants, whales, and more — of animals that can learn to talk, thanks to a 1987 recording.
During a recent review of birds capable of vocal learning, researcher Carel ten Cate of the Netherlands’ Institute of Biology Leiden of Leiden University found recorded audio of an Australian musk duck saying, “You body fool!”
“The male waterbird, named Ripper, was also heard imitating the sound of a door slamming,” ten Cate shared in a Leiden University article on Monday.
Now-retired Australian scientist Peter J. Fullagar received the audio in 1987 from an Australian birder, ten Cate discovered.
“This came as a big surprise. Because even though the bird was recorded 35 years ago, it remained unnoticed by researchers in the vocal learning field until now,” ten Cate said in the article. “That makes it a very special rediscovery.”
He added, “The man, Peter Fullagar, told me that the duck was hand-reared and would have had heard the sound as a duckling.”
Ten Cate also found recordings of musk ducks imitating noises “such as a snorting pony, the cough of a caretaker and a squeaking door,” per the Leiden University article.
Speaking to the New Scientist, the researcher said, “Vocal learning is a rare and special trait, so that makes this duck particularly special.”
Fullagar also obtained a recording of another male musk duck in 2000 mimicking quack sounds “like common park ducks,” ten Cate found, he told New Scientist.
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“When I first heard these stories, I thought, ‘Oh, this must be a really good joke,'” the researcher told the outlet of rumored speculation that the Australian ducks could talk. “But actually, they come from respected scientists and birdkeepers, and the reports are very reliable. Apparently, these ducks are learning something about vocalizations starting at a very young age.”
In the Leiden University article, ten Cate added, “It is not yet clear why this particular species is capable of vocal learning.”