112. THE WILD DUCK.
Anas boscas, LINNAEUS.
Outer web of the primaries blackish ; inner web drab, with a blackish tip. Axillaries pure white. Speculum metallic purple between two double bands of black and white. Bill of equal width throughout.
MALE :- -Head and neck metallic green or purple; under tail-coverts black.
FEMALE :—Head and neck streaked with black and fulvous ; under tail-coverts fulvous streaked with brown.
VERNACULAR NAMES :—Nilsir, Niroji, Upper India; Lilgah, Lilg (male), Lilgahi, Lilge (female), Nepal.
THE Wild Duck or Mallard is a resident species in Kashmir and probably in other parts of the Himalayas. It is a winter visitor to the plains, being extremely abundant in the Western Punjab and Sind and comparatively rare in other parts, but extending considerably to the south.
Colonel J. M. Anderson, for instance, obtained - this Duck at Nimar and at Aurungabad in the Deccan, and Colonel E. A. Butler observed three, and shot one, at Habli, about eighteen miles south-east of Belgaum. Dr. Jerdon recorded it from Mhow. Mr. Hume has noticed it twice in the Calcutta market. We may therefore presume, I think, that the Wild Duck will be found in winter in suitable localities throughout the country lying between the base of the Himalayas and the latitude of Belgaum.
This Duck is found throughout Assam, and Mr. Stuart Baker mentions several places in that province where it has occurred. Mr. F. Finn also records it from North Luckimpore. Farther south it has been met with in Sylhet, Cachar and Manipur. I have been told of its occurrence near Bhamo, and Namkhan, and also near Mandalay. Lieut. J. H. Whitehead, a most competent observer, has lately written to me that he has bagged the Wild Duck at Kengtung in the eastern part of the Shan States. We may gather from the above that this Duck has a considerable range in winter over the Indo-Burmese countries, but is everywhere a somewhat rare bird.
The Wild Duck has a very extensive distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, being found everywhere, according to Season, from the Arctic Circle down to the Tropic of Cancer. Most of these Ducks no doubt go far north to breed, but where the conditions are favourable it is often a permanent resident even far south, as in Kashmir for instance.
The Mallard arrives in the northern parts of the plains of India about the middle of October and leaves again by the end of March or at latest by the middle of April. In the eastern part of the Empire it appears to be met with only during the coldest months, from December to February. Near the base of the Himalayas, birds of this species have been procured in July and August, and their breeding-quarters were probably close by.
The habits of the Wild Duck can be best described by a series of extracts from the writings of experienced observers who have had ample opportunities for studying this bird. And, first, as regards the species in India, I shall quote from Messrs. Hume and Marshall's " Game-birds " :—
" In India, even in far north-west and in Sindh, where many hundreds may be met with in a day, the Mallard is rarely seen in large flocks, and is almost invariably in small knots of three to ten in number, or, towards the close of the season, in pairs. In the North-West Provinces they are usually met with in the larger jhils and broads, but in the Punjab and Sind they are equally common on the larger rivers and inland waters.
" With us they feed chiefly by night, often changing their ground for this purpose about dusk, though not with the regularity observable in the case of wild fowl at home, while during the day, at any rate between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., they are, if undisturbed, almost always asleep. On our rivers, you find the party pretty close together, but not huddled into a lump like some other species, snoozing on the bank at the water's edge, while in broads you find them floating motionless in some secluded nook of pellucid water screened in by bulrushes and weeds, and often overhung by tamarisk or other trees.
" Compared with many other species they are tame and unsuspicious, or, perhaps I should say, unwary. With the most ordinary precautions you may always (where they are not much worried) make sure of some out of every party that you meet with."
Of the habits of the Wild Duck in England, Seebohm writes:—"The Mallard is probably the most numerous species of Duck, and the most gregarious. Sometimes enormous flocks may be seen in winter on the coasts, flying low over the water, especially about sunset, looking black against the red sky as with rapid flight they hurry to their feeding-grounds. These flocks consist principally of migratory Ducks from the cold north, and Pin-tail and Wigeon are often found consorting with Mallards. The flight of the latter species is very rapid and powerful, and each stroke of its wings is distinctly audible even at some distance. When disturbed from the water they soon get fairly on the wing and fly straight away, slowly wheeling round if necessary, so as to get up wind ; but as they rise from the surface the direction of their flight forms a very small angle at first with the plane of the water, and this is also the case as they alight. As they approach the water, they skim with expanded wings, and drop feet first perpendicular into it, with depressed tail and fluttering wings. If a pair of Mallard are on the water the drake generally waits for the duck to get up first. They do not dive in search of food, but they sometimes do so in play, and frequently if wounded in the wing, or if pursued by a Hawk. The Mallard, in spite of the wonderful intelligence which it shows in its habits, and in spite of the excellence of its flesh when brought to table, is a great glutton. It may almost be said of this bird that it is omnivorous and never satisfied. No kind of animal life which is to be found in the water comes amiss to it, and few water-plants are safe from its voracity. On the banks it eats the juicy ends of grass and the buds of other weeds. In early morning, or during the day, after a shower, it repairs to the pastures to feed on the worms and slugs, or strays into the orchards to pick up fallen fruit. In autumn it enters the forest to devour the acorns under the oaks, or wanders over the stubble-fields to pick up the scattered grain. So eager is it to satisfy its appetite, that it can scarcely find an opportunity to roost during the day ; and at night most of its time is occupied in sifting the mud on the banks of lakes and streams or on the sea-shore. To carry on this process scarcely any light is required ; it may be heard feeding on very dark nights ; the selection of the food which remains after the mud has been washed away through the lamella? with which the edges of its bill are provided must be made entirely by feeling."
I string together some interesting remarks from Mr. Abel Chapman's " Bird-Life of the Borders " :—" By nature the Mallard is essentially and absolutely a night-feeding bird (far more so than the Wigeon); is almost omnivorous in its taste, but with a partiality for fresh water if easily accessible; has a strong inclination to rest by day, but careless as to whether it rests ashore or afloat. Well aware of the danger of remaining inside harbour by day, the Mallards, with the Wigeon, take flight from their feeding grounds, as a rule, before a sign of daylight has appeared. Their most favoured resorts for whiling away the hours of daylight are either (1) on the open sea, opposite their feeding grounds if smooth, or, otherwise, some sheltered bay or roadstead along the coast, possibly several miles away; or (2) among the tidal channels and shallow backwaters, formed by the tide, in the sand-bars which inclose most large estuaries, or wildfowl resorts, both in this and other countries.... Considering the well-known fact that the Mallard is certainly one of the wildest and most watchful birds in existence, one singular fact has always struck the writer as being among the most inexplicable features in wild fowling—namely, the comparative ease with which these Ducks can often be approached in broad daylight in a gunning-punt. . . . Yet, strange to relate, the Mallards, the finest and most valuable fowl of them all, despite the experience of generations, do not yet seem fully to have learned to recognise the deadly nature of that low white craft. Time after time I have ' shoved' up to within sixty, even fifty, yards of their still unconscious flotilla, drifting slowly along on the tide, all inanimate and apparently asleep, hardly a head to be seen. Even after the cruel disappointment of a miss-fire they have not risen at once. Up go their necks, full stretch, at the snap of the cap, and their deep-toned and extremely elo¬quent ' q-u-a-r-k ! q-u-a-r-k !' is barely audible, so gently and suspiciously is the alarm note sounded, but they do not rise till one has had almost time to replace the cap, but not quite."
Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey observes in "The Fowler in Ireland":—"A mallard is not such an expert diver when wounded as is the female wild-duck; and will often foolishly waddle out on dry land, thus affording an easy chance to the fowler. The females, however, are gifted with far greater powers of deception, and can dive and hide well. They will creep slily to the shore, and there lie motionless among weeds or stones, till all but trodden underfoot by the searcher. Shore shooters have tried to convince me that the female wild-duck, when wounded, will remain under Water, holding by the bill to aquatic plants or seaweed till drowned. They cannot, they say, otherwise account for losing sight of their wounded birds, as they often do. This idea is a fallacy, and is to be accounted for by the fact of the cripple having risen and dived at some spot towards which their eyes were not at the moment directed, and so crept away out of shot, or stolen to shore. Once near the land, they have the cunning to remain motionless, with but the bill and eye above water; at such times every shelter is taken advantage of, be it only a lump of floating weed, or tiny creek. This cunning is of great service to a duck when with young brood or eggs. At such times she will glide softly from the nest, and remain with only the bill above water in the neighbouring reeds and aquatic plants; or else, by diving and reappearing at a distance, endeavour to decoy the intruder from her precious charge."
I transcribe the following interesting notes from Mr. Stevenson's " Birds of Norfolk " :—" It is seldom the wild duck is distressed for food, and even when frozen out, the supply of acorns, which are almost always to be had, even in snowy weather, proves a great attraction.
" A large number of wild duck nest every year in Norfolk, generally dispersed over the county ; and, although the greater number are produced in the Broad district, there is scarcely a stream or piece of water of any extent which does not form a nursery for a brood or two at some time. Our sluggish rivers, meandering through a flat country, and in many places flanked by damp woods and cars, are a source of great attraction to these birds, but many nest on dry open heaths, at a distance of a couple of miles from any water, under the shelter of a whin bush or a clump of brakes, whence the old birds lead their young ones to the nearest water. . . . One curious circumstance in connection with the nesting of the wild duck is the frequency of the occurrence of pheasants' or partridges' eggs in their nests; many such instances have come under my observation, and I have frequently heard of others. The partridge occasionally makes use of the comfortable nest of the duck as a receptacle for its eggs, but not, I believe, so frequently as the pheasant. When the proud mother marshals her young ones, to conduct them to the water, great must be her surprise at the ugly ducklings which form part of her brood.
" Wild ducks frequently depart from their usual habit of nesting on the ground and make use of trees for the purpose. Instances are known where ducks' nests have been found twenty feet from the ground. In many cases the deserted nests of wood-pigeons are made use of; and a nest of the wild duck has actually been discovered in some ivy on the top of a wall."
In Kashmir the Wild Duck breeds in large numbers, laying in May and the beginning of June. It constructs its nest on the ground on the margins of lakes, or even in rice-fields, under an overhanging tuft of grass or rushes. The nest is composed of dry grass and flag, and after the eggs are laid it is lined with down. The number of eggs varies from eight to twelve.
The eggs of the Wild Duck are very variable in colour, and range between a dull pale green and a pale stone-colour. The shell is very smooth and has a faint gloss. In shape the eggs are nearly elliptical, one end being slightly pointed. They vary from 2.1 to 2.5 in length, and from 1.5 to 1.7 in breadth. The down is dark greyish brown with whitish centres, and pale inconspicuous tips.
The adult male has the whole head and neck brilliant metallic green or purple, the crown of the head and the hindneck less glossy and standing out distinct from the other parts. There is a narrow white collar at the base of the neck, not quite complete behind. The whole breast is a rich brownish chestnut, each feather margined with grey. The remaining lower plumage, including the sides of the body and the basal part of the under tail-coverts is grey, very finely and regularly vermiculated with ashy or brown. The terminal part of the under tail-coverts is black. The axillaries and the under wing-coverts are white. The mantle is brown, very finely vermiculated with grey. The back is brown, the feathers with pale margins, and some of them, on the lower back, mottled with black. The inner and outer margins of the scapulars are chocolate-brown, the central portion grey, the whole finely vermiculated with black and ashy. The rump and the upper tail-coverts are deep black. On either side of the upper tail-coverts there is a bunch of truncated feathers, broadly tipped with white, and generally concealed by the long flank-feathers. The four middle tail-feathers are black and curled up, the others are whitish, with the central portion more or less brown. The upper wing-coverts are greyish brown, the lower series tipped black, with a preceding white band. The inner web of the primaries and the shaft are drab with a brown tip; the outer web entirely brown. The first, and sometimes the second or third, secondary, are dark brown on the outer, paler brown on the inner, web, and tipped with white. The following ones have the outer web metallic purple with a double- band of black and white at the tip; the inner web brown tipped with white. The first two or three inner secondaries next the speculum are rich brown on the outer web, grey on the inner ; and the innermost secondaries are all grey.
Younger males have very broad margins to the feathers of the breast; and the whole abdomen is streaked with brown. Each of these brown streaks has a fulvous or buff margin on either side.
Males, in post-nuptial plumage, resemble the females closely, and are only to be distinguished by the black crown and a dark stripe through the eye.
The adult female has the chin, throat and foreneck plain fulvous. The remainder of the head and neck is closely streaked with narrow black and fulvous lines. The whole upper plumage, with the scapulars and upper tail-coverts, is dark brown or black, each feather margined and diagonally banded with fulvous. The tail-feathers are similar, but with whitish margins. The upper wing-coverts are brown, but otherwise the whole wing is quite similar to that of the male. The whole lower plumage is fulvous, marked with brown; the marks on the breast being crescentic, those on the abdomen elongated, spots, those on the sides of the body diagonal bands, and, finally, those on the under tail-coverts streaks. The axillaries and under wing-coverts are pure white. At times, the abdomen is plain or very slightly spotted.
Ducklings change into a first plumage which resembles that of the female, and young drakes soon begin to assume the plumage of the adult, which, however, is not quite attained in its fullest lustre till the third year.
Male: length about 23 ; wing about 11; tail about 4. Female : length about 21 ; wing about 10; tail 3 3/4. The bill is greenish yellow, with the nail blackish; the irides are brown; the legs orange. Weight, generally up to 3 lb, but occasionally up to 4 lb.