These Australian Ducks Can Learn to Swear Like People, And Biologists Are Excited

If you were to see one of Australia's musk-ducks, it would be hard to miss them. Named after the musky scent that the ducks emit during breeding season, the males have large, black ears below their bills.
If the musk duck with whom you are hanging out is Ripper, then swearing is another dead giveaway. Human words. This is a fascinating find for animal researchers. New research has explored how some of these species of duck got that trait.

In their paper, Carel ten Cate (Leiden University), and Peter Fullagar state that vocalizations can only be acquired by learning them from others.

"We provide evidence of vocal learning in an Australian musk duck (Biziura.lobata)"

One duck Ripper was raised at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve South West, Australia's capital Canberra in the 1980s. He learned how to imitate the sound and rhythm of a slamming doors (you can hear it here) and also a phrase that sounds very much like "you bloody fool".

Researchers are not sure how Ripper learned this particular Australian phrase, but they think it was something his caretaker would have said, and that the bird eventually learned to repeat it.

Researchers write that Ripper was reared from an egg from East Gippsland in Victoria in September 1983. This was the only musk-duck present at the time of raising.

"Unfortunately, all documents of Tidbinbilla were destroyed in the wildfires that swept through the reserve on January 2003. It is difficult to determine all details."

A second male duck lived at Tidbinbilla fifteen years later. However, it was raised by a female rather than a human caregiver. In June 2000, he was recorded sounding completely different from a Pacific black duck (Anas supraciliosa). Unfortunately, much of the information regarding this duck was lost in the fire.

We do know, however, that the imitation noises were used by both ducks in their mating displays. Can you imagine the mixture of noise and musk smell?

These amazing events occurred quite some time ago. However, the researchers have submitted the case in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. It focuses on "vocal learning" in humans and animals.

Researchers write that although these sounds were described previously, they were not analyzed in detail. They also went unnoticed as far as researchers of vocal learning.

These observations, along with previous observations of vocal differences among populations and deviant vocalizations within captive-reared individuals, demonstrate that there is advanced vocal learning at a level comparable in ability to songbirds or parrots.

Ethologists also noted a number other male musk ducks in Britain that mimic human coughing, snorting ponies, and the squeaks of a turnstile.

Researchers are now interested in musk ducks because they can mimic vocal sounds like musk birds. Musk ducks are the only member of their genus and are not closely related to any other birds that can imitate noises like parrots and song birds.

So why does the musk duck mimic other birds? The telencephalon, which is the part of the brain that aids in vocal learning in songbirds or parrots, is, however, significantly larger in waterfowls than other bird groups.

Researchers aren't certain, but they believe the musk-duck evolved its mimicking abilities separately from other mimicking species. This is because these birds are close to the tree of the bird evolutionary trees. If it has evolved within them once, then the ability must have been lost many more times. It would be more logical to have it evolve separately a few times.

Researchers write that vocal learning in the musk-duck would be an example of independent evolution. This raises many questions, from the neural and behavioral mechanisms to the evolutionary and adaptive backgrounds of vocal learning in this species.

"Therefore, it is important to document and analyze the reported imitations."

There is still much research to do. Researchers explain that we don't know the exact species of living species closest to the musk-duck, but we know that it is the only duck and fowl with this ability.

We're all bloody fools until we learn more about this incredible species.

The research was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (link not available at the time of publication).