Photo of a black duck on a pond.

Some musk ducks can copy sounds they hear

Credit: Wikimedia commons/JJ Harrison CC-BY-SA 3.0

Have you ever heard a parrot talking like a person? Or maybe you’ve seen a lyrebird in the forest, impersonating everything it hears. Now there’s another talking bird you can add to the list. If you check the bottom of this article, you can hear a talking duck!

The story starts back in the 1980s at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra. A caretaker hand raised a musk duck named Ripper. When he was all grown up, Ripper imitated some interesting sounds. He did a great impression of a slamming door, which he’d heard when he was just a duckling. And he also had a call that sounded just like a person talking. We can only assume that Ripper was a bit of a terror. How else would he have learnt to say, “you bloody fool!”?

Ripper was a special duck, but he’s not the only one to copy what he heard. Almost 15 years later, a different musk duck was recorded copying the calls of a Pacific black duck!

Digging into the family tree

So why are scientists interested in copycat ducks? Most talking birds come from two groups. They’re either parrots, such as budgies, galahs and cockatoos, or they’re songbirds such as magpies, crows and lyrebirds. Songbirds and parrots are quite closely related. So scientists think that maybe, the species that evolved into both parrots and songbirds might also have been a good mimic.

Ducks are very different to parrots or songbirds – they’re more closely related to chickens. If ducks and songbirds both descended from the same mimic species, then so did many other birds. It could include bird groups ranging from owls to pigeons, and even penguins!

There is another possibility though. These copycat skills might have emerged separately in musk ducks. And if mimicry has popped up twice already, it might be easier than we thought. There could be other types of birds just waiting to copy quirky sounds. Talking penguins anyone?

Hear it!

To hear Ripper the duck saying “you bloody fool”, play the audio file below:

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4 responses

  1. Daisy Avatar

    There is no way that is real

    1. David Avatar

      If you want to read the scientific paper, it’s available online:

      It’s been checked by a bunch of scientists and they’re sure it’s real. Sometimes real life is just real strange!

  2. Lucinda Avatar

    Could chickens do that too?

    1. David Avatar

      Hi Lucinda,
      It’s hard to say if chickens can learn to talk. They are related to ducks, and we’ve found one species of duck that can talk.

      On the other hand, there are lots of people with chickens and no-one has found a talking chicken. So the chances are that chickens can’t talk.

      But there’s always a chance that a new mutation occurs, or a crossbreed with wild birds introduces some new DNA.

      Scientists don’t know why some birds can talk and others can’t. Until we work that out, we can’t say for sure if a talking chicken is possible.

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