PARIS: Move over parrots: scientists have stumbled across an impersonating bird whose repertoire goes beyond demanding a cracker.
An Australian musk duck was able to memorise and reproduce sounds and speech - imitating the noise of a door slamming and someone muttering the phrase, “You bloody fool”.
Biologist Carel ten Cate says he found it “hard to believe” when he unexpectedly discovered a claim that musk ducks could parrot back human speech.
But he decided to go hunting to see if it was true.
Hours and hours of searching through archives brought him to an eerie 1987 recording of “Ripper” — a hand-raised specimen who was four years old at the time and living on the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra.
“You bloody foo,” the duck says, over and over, “You bloody foo,” dropping the “l”, which is apparently hard for ducks to pronounce.
The sounds accompanied Ripper’s mating display, according to the study published Monday in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
A male musk duck usually fends off competitors with repetitive sounds accompanied by kicking, while “the tail is kept in different positions”.
Peter Fullagar, who made the recordings, would deliberately “enrage” the duck by approaching the cage, the report said.
Ripper would begin his dance - but then quack out the insult instead of making ordinary duck noises.
And his vocal skills went further.
Fullagar also recorded Ripper imitating the sound of a light door slamming.
Sonogram analysis revealed the sound to be strikingly similar to one made by a screen door next to the sink, in which Ripper was kept as a duckling.
Ten Cate says the fact that Ripper reproduced sounds he most likely heard when he was young is a key finding of the research.
“Vocal learning of the type shown by Ripper was thought only to be present in songbirds, hummingbirds and parrots,” he said.
“The Australian musk duck is the fourth instance of independent evolution (of the trait) among the around 35-40 bird groups that exist,” he said.
While Ripper is the only duck known to have been recorded “talking”, Fullagar captured audio of a musk duck imitating the sounds of another duck species.
The report also includes personal accounts from other musk duck owners, including one from a specimen reared in Pensthorpe in eastern England.
“The male was a wonderful mimic when he was quite young,” the owner says in the study.
“You could hear a lot of coughing and a snorting pony which lived next door to him. He even tried a unpronounceable hello to the gardener.”