In 1987, a researcher by the name of Peter J. Fullagar brought out his Sony Walkman Professional tape recorder to capture the unusual vocalizations of a captive duck. The duck repeatedly yelled “fool” when enraged by the presence of strangers, much to Fullagar’s delight. New Studies show that this duck was actually mimicking something he had heard from humans.
Recordings of the male Australian musk duck, named Ripper, were hidden deep in the halls of the Australian National Wildlife Collection before being rediscovered by Professor Carel ten Cate of the University of Leiden. Analysis proves that the duck repeatedly cursed “fool” and could mimic the sound of a door slamming. In one recording, it even looks like the duck is trying to say “you bloody wanker.”
Musk ducks are rarely held in captivity because, as these recordings suggest, they are perfect assholes (they also smell like garbage during mating season). It may have something to do with the way they’re raised – musky duck mothers rarely produce more than a few eggs, and they care for their babies much 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 masters, a situation that could promote what is called “vocal learning”.
Most animals have the ability to learn new sounds and their associated meanings, but vocal learning is widely considered to be a human trait. It is the process of learning to to create new sounds by imitation or other means, and although Ripper can’t speak like a parrot, his swearing is a sure sign of vocal learning.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Fullagar claims that another duck held captive with Ripper has learned to mimic his door slamming sound. This duck taught one of his descendants to make the same sound, which Fullagar captured in 2000 (long after the Ripper died).
Biologists are stuck in a strange position here. Either they underestimated the vocal learning abilities of animals, or musk ducks are developing new habits that support the phenomenon. Maybe both situations are true – anyway, I want to hear a duck curse in person, so smart scientists better figure this thing out soon.