Back in 1987, a researcher named Peter J. Fullagar whipped out his Sony Walkman Professional cassette recorder to capture a captive duck’s unusual vocalizations. The duck repeatedly yelled “you bloody fool” when enraged by the presence of strangers, much to the enjoyment of Fullagar. New research shows that this duck was, in fact, mimicking something it heard from humans.
Recordings of the Australian male musk duck, named Ripper, were tucked deep in the halls of the Australian National Wildlife Collection before being rediscovered by professor Carel ten Cate of Leiden University. Analysis proves that the duck repeatedly cursed “you bloody fool” and could imitate the sound of a slamming door. In one recording, it even sounds like the duck is trying to say “you bloody wanker.”
Musk ducks are rarely held in captivity because, as these recordings suggest, they’re complete assholes (they also smell like garbage during mating season). Maybe it has something to do with how they’re raised—musk duck mothers rarely produce more than a few eggs, and they care for their babies a lot longer than other duck breeds.
For this reason, musk ducks born in captivity must be isolated and fed by handlers for several weeks before they can join other waterfowl. They spend a lot of time learning from and bonding with their handlers, a situation that could promote something called “vocal learning.”
Most animals have the ability to learn new sounds and their associated meanings, but vocal learning is largely considered a human trait. It’s the process of learning to create new sounds through imitation or other means, and while Ripper couldn’t talk like a parrot, his cursing is a sure sign of vocal learning.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but Fullagar claims that another duck held in captivity with Ripper learned to imitate his door-slamming noise. This duck taught one of its offspring to make the same sound, which Fullagar captured in 2000 (long after Ripper’s death).
Biologists are stuck in a weird position here. Either they’ve underestimated animals’ vocal learning abilities, or musk ducks are evolving new habits that support the phenomena. Perhaps both situations are true—either way, I want to hear a duck cursing in person, so smart science people better figure this thing out soon.