Australian birds aren’t exactly known for their use of “fowl” language, but thanks to a musk duck named Ripper and the discovery of a 35-year-old recording, that might be about to change.

Ripper’s unexpected rise to fame came when Carel ten Cate, a professor of animal behavior at Leiden University in the Netherlands, began investigating the evolution of vocal learning among birds.

During his research he stumbled across a recording from the summer of 1987, which appeared to capture the male musk duck swearing repeatedly and mimicking the sound of a closing door.

The moment was a “special rediscovery,” Cate said, explaining in an email to The Washington Post that the find was “pure coincidence.” Cate contacted Peter J. Fullagar, the scientist who had recorded the talking bird, which was 4 years old at the time the audio file was created.

Their research, which was published Monday in the Royal Society scientific journal, indicates that captive musk ducks appear to have the ability to imitate human speech. In Ripper’s case, the phrase he was captured repeating sounded exactly like “you bloody fool.”


Vocal learning among most animals is an advanced trait and relatively rare, although some groups such as songbirds and parrots have demonstrated their ability to learn words from humans.

Cate described the discovery of vocal learning in a duck species “extra remarkable.”

Although it is impossible to know for sure where the duck got the phrase from, it may have been language picked up from his caregiver, the report said.

Musk ducks form strong maternal relationships because the species reproduce in small numbers — which means mothers have more time to interact with their young.

This may explain why hand-reared musk ducks like Ripper, who was raised at Australia’s Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, form strong human connections with their caregivers and are more likely to mimic their behavior.

In the study, which took around two years to compile, researchers said that they had also received reports of two male musk ducks, raised in the United Kingdom, mimicking human noises they had been exposed to, including coughing sounds.


Musk ducks can only be found naturally in Australia and are known for their large, powerful builds and stiff black and brown feathers. Males have what experts describe as a “large bulbous lobe of skin,” that dangles underneath their bill and inflates as they seek a mate.

Females have a smaller pocket of leathery skin that hangs underneath their bill and are smaller in stature.

The duck’s name derives from the odor they emit when attempting to attract a mate.

“We never thought ducks were capable of this,” Sean Dooley, public affairs manager at the conservation organization BirdLife Australia told The Post on Tuesday, adding that the findings came as a surprise.

“This was not on my bingo card,” Dooley joked, but added if he had to pick a duck species to exhibit such a talent, it would be musk ducks, which he called “incredibly unique and charismatic.”

When it comes to mating rituals, males put on an elaborate display — kicking and splashing the water while making loud whistling sounds during the day and night, according to BirdLife.


“They pull out all the stops,” Dooley said of the ritual.

Cate said he hopes the research will inspire other scientists to analyze the ducks.

“There is still a lot more to examine on this species,” he said.

And, while Ripper is no longer alive, his surprising story has brought joy and amusement to some in Australia, where citizens in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne remain under lockdown restrictions amid outbreaks of the delta variant.

“As we enter week four of L4 lockdown, this is the kind of distraction I need. Brilliant,” read one tweet, while Dooley said that many more people were paying attention to birds and the outside world as a result of the global health crisis.