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Vocal imitation of metal door opening and closing from Vocal imitations and production learning by Australian musk ducks (Biziura lobata)

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posted on 16.07.2021, 08:47 by Carel ten Cate, Peter J. Fullagar
Acquiring vocalizations by learning them from other individuals is only known from a limited number of animal groups. For birds, oscine and some suboscine songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds demonstrate this ability. Here, we provide evidence for vocal learning in a member of a basal clade of the avian phylogeny: the Australian musk duck (Biziura lobata). A hand-reared individual imitated a slamming door and a human voice, and a female-reared individual imitated Pacific black duck quacks. These sounds have been described before, but were never analysed in any detail and went so far unnoticed by researchers of vocal learning. The imitations were produced during the males' advertising display. The hand-reared male used at least three different vocalizations in the display context, with each one produced in the same stereotyped and repetitive structure as the normal display sounds. Sounds of different origins could be combined in one vocalization and at least some of the imitations were memorized at an early age, well before they were produced later in life. Together with earlier observations of vocal differences between populations and deviant vocalizations in captive-reared individuals, these observations demonstrate the presence of advanced vocal learning at a level comparable to that of songbirds and parrots. We discuss the rearing conditions that may have given rise to the imitations and suggest that the structure of the duck vocalizations indicates a quite sophisticated and flexible control over the vocal production mechanism. The observations support the hypothesis that vocal learning in birds evolved in several groups independently rather than evolving once with several losses.This article is part of the theme issue ‘Vocal learning in animals and humans’.