If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck but talks like a cranky Aussie, it's probably still a duck. At least that's the case with Ripper, the brash musk duck from the Canberra region that scientists claim has provided the first documented proof of the species being able to mimic human language and other sounds. Per the BBC, Ripper was recorded in 1987 by scientist Peter Fullagar, who at the time was researching vocal learning in birds. Included on tape during Fullagar's interactions with the 4-year-old male at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve: Ripper making sounds like a slamming door, as well as repeatedly saying what sounds like "you bloody fool" (listen here).
Fullagar's recording remained buried until recently, when Leiden University animal behaviorist Carel ten Cate, who was himself researching vocal learning in birds, made the "special rediscovery," he tells the Washington Post. Cate reached out to Fullagar, now retired, and together they put together a two-year study published this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B journal. They added Biziura lobata, aka musk ducks, to the mix of animals being able to mimic sounds (a not-common phenomenon), joining songbirds, parrots, elephants, bats, and certain marine creatures, including dolphins and whales.
The scientists say that Ripper's "you bloody fool" insult "is most likely an imitation of a phrase he heard repeatedly from his caretaker" at the nature reserve. The Post notes that musk ducks don't come from huge broods, which allows them to bond more with their mothers. In the case of the now-deceased Ripper—who was hatched from an egg, then hand-reared by humans—that connection was likely forged with his caregiver, and he may have tried to emulate that caregiver's language.
Ripper reportedly performed his vocalizations during "aggressive mating displays," per the Guardian. Fullagar also recorded a second musk duck in 2000 at Tidbinbilla; in that case, the bird mimicked a different type of duck's quacks. The study also mentions reports of two other male musk ducks in the UK that have been observed mimicking coughing, though the researchers note those ducks weren't recorded and that the sounds they made haven't been independently verified. "This was not on my bingo card," Sean Dooley of the BirdLife Australia conservation group tells the Post. "We never thought ducks were capable of this." (Read more strange stuff stories.)