As It Happens

'You bloody fool,' says Ripper, the first known talking duck

It looks like a duck, but it doesn't quack like one. Ripper the musk duck sounds more like the grumpy Australian caretaker who reared him.

Scientist unearths 30-year-old recording of a foulmouthed waterfowl mimicking its caretaker

A male musk duck (not Ripper) goes for a swim in Bunbury, Western Australia. (Auscape/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

A foul-mouthed waterfowl has scientists re-thinking what they thought they knew about ducks.

Researchers have uncovered a 30-year-old audio recording of an Australian musk duck named Ripper, seemingly repeating the phrase, "You bloody fool," and imitating the sound of a door slamming.

Carel ten Cate, a professor of animal behaviour at Leiden University in the Netherlands, first saw a reference to Ripper in an obscure book while working on a review paper about vocal learning in birds.

"I thought, well, it must be a hoax that the duck is capable of doing that, because we don't know of any other duck or geese species capable of imitation," ten Cate told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Curious to hear it for himself, he managed to dig up an old recording by retired ornithologist Peter Fullagar.

"I was quite stunned," he said. "It definitely didn't sound like a duck at all. It sounded very human."

Ten Cate and Fullagar have since teamed to study the rare phenomenon. Their findings have been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Ducky hear, ducky do

Ripper was hatched from an egg and hand-reared at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra, Australia. Despite his vulgar language, ten Cate says he probably wasn't as grumpy as he sounded.

He was most likely just mimicking the sounds he heard most often as a duckling from his human caretaker. 

"Normally the duck would probably have heard other musk ducks around and learned its sounds from them," he said.

"In this case, the only thing it heard were the sounds of the aviary door … and that of the animal caretaker looking after him. So those were taken as the model for its own vocalizations."

Listen: Ripper the duck mimics human words and sounds: 

 

Ten Cate says it's possible that Ripper wasn't saying "You bloody fool," but rather, "Your bloody food" — as in, "Eat your bloody food!"

"To the duck, it has no special meaning, these sounds," he said. "It just accepts them as likely models for what it has to produce itself."

A snorting duck, and a coughing duck 

Until Ripper, ten Cate says he'd never seen any evidence of a duck parroting human words and sounds. 

"Ducks and geese, they have been bred in captivity and domesticated for many generations all over the world, and a range of species, and there have been no reports of anything like this," he said.

But in the course of their research, he and Fullagar came across two other possible examples of mouthy mallards.

They were told of a duck at Pensthorpe Natural Park in the U.K. who has a reputation for mimicking the sound of a snorting pony, and another at Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust in the U.K. who is said to mimic his caretaker's characteristic cough and the squeak of a turnstile.

In both cases, the ducks were hand-reared by humans, but no recordings have been made of them.


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. 
 

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