The white-winged wood-duck is easily distinguished from all our other water-fowl by the contrast of its white head and the white inner half of its wings with its entirely dark body; its great size, which exceeds that of all other Indian ducks, is likely to cause it to be mistaken for a goose when seen on the wing at a distance, but close at hand, whether seen on land or water, it is a most unmistakable duck, with nothing of the goose about it.
The plumage of greenish-black and dark olive and red-brown, the black speckling on the white head, and the unique blue-grey bar bounding the white of the wing are common to both sexes, as are the yellow of the bill and feet, the former more or less speckled with black; but it is only in the male that the bill becomes red and swollen at the root when the bird is in breeding condition, and he is very noticeably larger than the female, which, big bird though she is, does not average more than five or six pounds ; a drake weighs about eight.
This splendid duck is a resident in our Empire, but very local and even yet not well known to most people, although the investigations of Mr. E. G. S. Baker in recent years have taught us a good deal about it. Its main home appears to be Assam, but it ranges east through Cachar and Burma to the Malay Peninsula, and its great haunts are the jungly, marsh- and pond-studded tracts in the country at the base of the hills ; in any case they are to be looked for in forest pools and streams, provided the running water is sluggish. It will thus be seen that their haunts are different from those of ducks in general, and in a suitable locality a couple of brace may be got in a day, not, of course, without considerable exertion. The birds spend much of their time on trees, and generally occur in pairs or even alone; flocks do not generally number more than half a dozen when met with.
Although so easily tamed that except in the breeding season they can be allowed liberty and even the use of their wings, they are very wary and hard to get near in the wild state. The flight and call are described as goose-like, the note being a loud squawking or trumpeting; nothing is said about there being any sexual difference in the voice, nor does the male's courting behaviour appear to have been recorded.
Those Mr. Baker kept do not, indeed, seem to have shown much inclination to breed beyond pairing regularly, and he found them remarkably good-tempered. This is probably a sign that they were never in real high condition, for birds that go in pairs ought normally to want to "clear the decks" when they think of nesting. Hume similarly found Brahminy ducks very gentle and amiable, whereas, as I have said in my account of that species, they are really quite the reverse if determined on domesticity. A single female wood-duck in the London Zoo recently was sluggish in her habits, and quiet when with Muscovy ducks, but when among the smaller water-fowl I have seen her make a spiteful grab at one now and again. I noticed that the gait on land and style of floating in the water, in this bird, were not in the least like those of the nukta or sheldrakes, with both of which this species has been associated, but like that of an ordinary duck such as the mallard or spotted-bill. The squawking voice, goose-like flight, style of wing-marking, and general habits, however, seem to point out that this bird is really a peculiar type of sheldrake, and the swelling of the drake's beak in spring is similar to what happens in the common sheldrake, as well as in the nukta.
Although Mr. Baker's specimens dived freely to catch live fish put in their tank, the wild birds are found not to dive when wounded, but to go ashore and hide in the jungle. They like various small animals, such as snails, insects and frogs, as well as fish, and prefer these to grain in captivity, though they would eat and thrive on the latter; they would not touch dead animal food, which is curious, as mergansers make no difficulty about this, though true fish-eaters. I presume they are fairly good eating, as an Assam planter who shot them regularly used to eat them equally so. The birds nest in holes and hollows of trees, the breeding season being about May, and they moult in September, retiring to the most remote swamps for safety. Outside our limits this bird is found in Java, and is slid to be domesticated there.