Thirty years ago, Ripper the duck sounded as if he’d had enough. “You bloody fool,” he repeated relentlessly in a recently rediscovered recording.
Besides that shocking soundbite, Ripper, who was 4 years old at the time also managed to imitate the sound of a door slamming shut. Researchers have analyzed his vocalizations, as well as those of different duck that was able to imitate the calls of another species, and their findings are published this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Carel ten Cate, an ethologist (a researcher of animal behavior) at the Institute of Biology Leiden in the Netherlands, and Peter Fullagar, a now-retired ornithologist who made the recordings, teamed up to unpack the remarkable mimicking ability of Ripper and his species. You can check out the “you bloody fool” audio below.
Ripper was a musk duck, a type of a waterfowl native to Australia. As is practically required of Australian fauna, the duck (Biziura lobata) looks a little odd, and males smell a bit funky due to a scent gland on their behind (as their name suggests). Most iconically, they have a jowly bit of skin that hangs below the bill and inflates during mating displays. The recordings of the bird are the first known example of any duck or goose species being able to mimic human speech.
“We do not know how exactly the sounds are being produced or whether the vocalization apparatus of this species are very different from other ducks,” ten Cate told Gizmodo in an email. While certain anatomical structures are necessary, “more important for the ability to imitate is the brain. There have to be areas that are capable of storing the sound and using it to model [the bird’s] own sounds,” he added.
Ripper lived on a nature reserve southwest of Canberra in the 1980s, and Fullagar made the recordings on a Sony Walkman cassette in July 1987. The researchers interpreted both vocalizations as angry displays, though there’s no indication that Ripper actually understood the meaning of his two vocalizations. You can hear his door slamming imitation below.
The other, unnamed duck imitated the sounds of Pacific black ducks. Ten Cate and Fullagar interviewed other rearers of musk ducks, who told the researchers that their ducks imitated the coughs and snorts of a pony, the high-pitched clink of a turnstile, and other un-duck-like sounds.
“The remarkable thing is that they do this spontaneously,” ten Cate said. “It is similar to songbirds, which store the songs of conspecifics”—meaning their of own species—“at a young age and then start to produce them when adult and becoming sexually mature.”
Of course, parrots are famous for their ability to mimic human speech, and myna birds in South America also imitate human sounds. Just last year, zookeepers in England said they had to separate a group of gray parrots who were encouraging each other to swear.