Wild and Fowl
Duck, duck, goose! Read about bird watching, especially the duck or rather- the anatids, and various other trivia in the first of a double article by Sumit Sen with illustrations by the talented Rohan Chakravarty.
Anatids are distributed worldwide, except for the Antarctic region. The family comprises 49 genera and 158 species of ducks, geese and swans worldwide. Of these, 19 genera and 44 species are known to occur in India. Most are trans-Himalayan winter migrants, while 12 are known to be resident. Anatids inhabit varied aquatic habitats from tropical rain forest to the high Arctic. They are most often found in lakes,ponds, streams, rivers, marshes and marine environments.
Anatids are medium to large birds (30-180 cm) and the plumage varies mainly according to taxa, with some being monomorphic while others are sexually dimorphic with males generally carrying all the bright colors. Our smallest duck is the Cotton Pygmy Goose at 33 cm, and the largest species recorded in India is the 152 cm Mute Swan.
These birds are primarily herbivorous and feed on seeds,roots, stems, leaves and flowers. Some also feed on aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans and small fish. Many, in our area,feed only in the safety of the night at far away agricultural fields and spend the day in safe waters to rest and preen.
Anatids are essentially monogamous and in some species,like the Ruddy Shelduck, pair bonds are known to last for years. Others may change mates from every year. Anatids breed seasonally in nests constructed by the females. The nesting site can be on scraps of land, aquatic vegetation or floating mounds.Some, like the Comb Duck, even nest in tree holes. The nest can contain from 4-13 eggs which are incubated over 22-40 days.Hatching is synchronous within 24 hours.
Many anatids are local or long-distance migrants, though some, like the Critically Endangered White-winged Duck, remain close to their breeding grounds all year. Many are champion long-distance migrants, flying to India all the way from the Siberian coast. Others, like the Bar-headed Goose, achieve great feats of endurance by crossing the oxygen-depleted high Himalayas.
Many ducks and geese are known for their spectacular flock formations outside the breeding season for protection from predators and exploiting food sources. This is best witnessed in Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur, where several hundred thousand Northern Pintails congregate in massive flocks.
From time immemorial anatids are the favorite game of hunters and are an important source of seasonal protein.Even today they are hunted across the world for sport and subsistence. Hunting pressure, along with dramatic loss of habitat, pesticides, disease and culling have pushed most wildfowl numbers way below what was obtained even 25 years ago, with some species facing the looming threat of extinction.This is particularly true in India, where illegal hunting and rapid decline in the quantity and quality of wetlands has resulted in steep declines in anatid numbers, both of resident and migrating species. Today, the Pink-headed Duck and the Baer’s Pochard are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the IUCN,with the resident Pink-headed Duck being considered extinct.
Others in the threatened list include the White-winged Duck,White-headed Duck, Marbled Teal, Long-tailed Duck and the Ferruginous Pochard.
“The Comb Duck or Knob-billed Duck (Sarkidiornismelanotos), isa resident of India, central and South Africa and South America,and quite a character. The male has a leaf-shaped knob atop his bill, which enlarges during the breeding season, making him look like Sisyphus of the duck world! One would believe that the ‘comb’ aids in producing a loud honk, but these ducks are usually very silent. It is classified under the ‘Least Concern’ category by the IUCN”
How and where to watch ducks?
Wildfowl – ducks, geese and swans – are extremely attractive and popular subjects for birdwatchers. In our parts they are best seen in winter when local species congregate in flocks which are augmented by huge numbers of migrants from colder climates.Most areas have a protected lake or reservoir which attracts wildfowl between November and March, and can contain a variety of species at day roosts. Well known sites in India include Keoladeo Ghana National Park,Pong Dam, Harike lake, Chilika, Thol sanctuary and others.Watching ducks requires the aid of a good field guide, a pair of binoculars,and often the ability to conceal yourself behind cover. It is best to use a powerful spotting scope, if you have one, to truly get the flavor of recognizing a rarity in a distant flock.
Wildfowl are sensitive, so causing minimum disturbance will enable you to get the most out of your time, and add to a delightful experience for your fellow birdwatchers too!
Illustration : Rohan Chakravarty
This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of Saevus magazine