A small number of animals, particularly birds, can learn to mimic other animals – including humans. The Australian musk duck can now be added to these ranks: a paper in Philosophical Transactions B has shown that the ducks can imitate other bird sounds and human sounds – like doors slamming, and one truly Australian phrase uttered by their keepers.
“You bloody fool,” agreed Ripper, musk duck and subject of the paper.
The paper, written by Carel ten Cate, a researcher at the Leiden University’s Institute of Biology in the Netherlands, and Peter Fullargar, now retired from the CSIRO, analyses two sets of recordings made by two musk ducks.
Ripper was a male musk duck, born in 1983 and raised in captivity at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in the ACT. Records at Tidbinbilla were destroyed by the 2003 Canberra bushfires, making aspects of Ripper’s past hazy, but one thing is known for certain: he could imitate human-made sounds.
In 1987, some researchers (including Fullargar) made recordings of these sounds, including a door slamming, human speech-like mumbles, and a repeated phrase that sounded like “you bloody foo”: this was a common refrain from his caretaker. Ripper was particularly likely to announce this when humans approached him.
In 2000, the researchers also recorded calls from another male musk duck, known simply as “Duck 2”. Duck 2, raised in Tidbinbilla by a captive female, could mimic the sounds of the Pacific black duck. He also made a sound similar to Ripper’s door-slamming noise.
“This second duck had been exposed to Ripper, which may have affected this part of the sound,” write ten Cate and Fullargar in their paper.
The authors point out that this is the first evidence of vocal learning in a member of the Anserinae (ducks, geese and swans) family.
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“The Australian musk duck demonstrates an unexpected and impressive ability for vocal learning,” they write in their paper.
They advocate for “a more extensive and systematic study of this and related, or other, species”, saying it could help to further understand how animals learn to make sounds.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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