Nobody likes being cussed out, but how do you think you would feel if a duck was the one doing it? Giving a whole new meaning to “foul language,” this Australian duck can use swear words and imitate other sounds.
Biologist Carel ten Cate first heard rumors of this incredible duck, but couldn’t believe it at first. After tracking down a well-respected Australian scientist, Peter J. Fullager, who first noticed the phenomenon 30 years ago, however, he quickly changed his mind. Ten Cate observed footage of an adult musk duck vocalizing several sounds. These sounds include a door slamming, a pony snorting, a man coughing, and even saying “you bloody fool!”
The duck, named Ripper, reportedly calls people fools because his former caretaker often uttered it. Documented in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, this means the musk duck joins the exclusive club of animals capable of acquiring speaking through vocal learning. Parrots, hummingbirds, some songbirds, as well as some whales, seals, dolphins, and bats are the other known ones.
Michael Yartsev, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, described how vocal learning works. “Most species have a more innate ability to learn how to make sounds. But a few rare animals, including a handful of mammals and, of course, human beings, are vocal learners. They need auditory feedback to learn how to make the right sounds if they want to communicate.”
What Does This Discovery Mean Regarding Vocal Learning And Animals?
Michael Yartsev expresses great excitement about Ripper and what it means for other animals. Yartsev’s earlier studies with Egyptian fruit bats showed if exposed to unique acoustic environments shortly after birth, they developed different vocalizations.
“This suggests that their vocalizations have some plasticity,” Yartsev notes. “Our own work has shown that, even in adults, if you expose the bats to sound perturbation, they have the capacity to modify or adapt their vocalizations in a stable manner over prolonged periods of time. So, there are good indications that there is some form of plasticity there that we can investigate.”
Ten Cate’s own research seems to agree. He identified another musk duck raised alongside Pacific black ducks and it quacked like them. Co-authoring a new study with Fullager, ten Cate concluded captive-raised musk ducks possess advanced vocal learning compared to their wild peers.
“Together with earlier observations of vocal differences between populations and deviant vocalizations in captive-reared individuals, these observations demonstrate the presence of advanced vocal learning at a level comparable to that of songbirds and parrots.”
Ducks separated from other birds evolution-wise earlier than parrots or songbirds. As such, duck brains differ quite a bit from their cousins. Musk ducks being able to speak in such a way suggests vocal learning in birds evolved independently, unlike what was previously thought.