Small Whistler or Whistling Teal.
The loud whistling call of several syllables uttered by this duck will at once strike the newcomer to India as something new in duck utterances ; it has evidently given the bird the Hindustani name above-noted, as also the variants of Silhahi and Chihee, while the Burmese rendering Si-sa-li is even closer.
The flight of the bird is as distinctive as the note; the legs, unusually long for a duck, and the neck tend to droop, at any rate when flying low, and the large blunt wings, which are all black underneath, contrasting with the brown body, are moved quickly, although the flight is not fast. The birds may settle in a tree, which naturally seems an even more remarkable performance than their vocal one ; and, indeed, the dendrocycnas, which are essentially tropical ducks, are often called tree-ducks as a group. The whistling, cackling call, however, which is common to both sexes, is a far more distinctive peculiarity than the perching habit, common as this is to most ducks resident in the tropics. No doubt crocodiles and alligators have done their share in establishing this custom !
The plumage is as alike in the two sexes in this duck as the call, and this is again a group peculiarity ; in the present bird there is no striking marking, but the combination of brown body and wings nearly all black will distinguish this bird from all our species but the large whistler, of which more anon. On the water it swims rather low, and the neck seems long in proportion to the narrow body and very short tail, while the wings fold so closely that the tips are not seen. This is a small duck, only weighing a pound or a little over, but it is absurd to call it a teal on that account ; the teal are pigmy relatives of the typical ducks, while these whistlers are a very distinct group, and in many ways are more like small geese than ducks. The present bird is the most abundant of the resident Indian ducks, and is found nearly all over the Empire where wood and water are combined, even down to the Andamans and Nicobars. But it is essentially a warm-climate bird, and does not often ascend the hills, nor is it to be found in dry treeless districts. In the Punjaub, where the migratory ducks are so common, it is rarely seen.
The sort of water it likes is that overgrown with weeds, and here it is- quite at home, be the water a village pond or an extensive jheel. At night it roosts on a neighbouring tree, feeding among the weeds during the day, but seldom going ashore to do so. On land it walks well and gracefully, though slowly ; but it is essentially a water bird, and dives for food freely, though its action in so doing is just like that of a coot, as it springs high in starting, lifting its whole body out of the water. Naturally, it is difficult to bring to book if wounded, but Europeans generally refuse to regard it as game, owing to its general tameness and slow flight. This is a mistake, for it occurs in flocks of thousands where the locality suits it, and where it is common it must greatly interfere with the game migratory ducks. It is a most quarrelsome bird with others, attacking in combination ; I have seen even four set on to one spotted-bill in captivity. Even its own big cousin next to be described comes in for its bullying, and gives way to it. The flesh of whistlers is poor in most people's opinion, but will do for soup, and is liked by natives. The food is water-plants and snails, rice, &c.
The birds breed usually in holes of trees or in the old nest of some kite or crow, but they also make nests for themselves either in trees, on cane-brakes, or among rushes—about anywhere where any duck ever does nest, in fact, except underground, though nests made by the birds themselves on the boughs, a rare habit among ducks, are the most usual. The eggs are rather rounded, very smooth, and creamy-white when fresh ; while the female is sitting the drake keeps guard close by, and the young are carried down to the water in the old birds' feet. The bird, which extends outside our limits to Java, has many native names : Saral, Sharul, Harrali-hans, in Bengali ; Hansrali in Uriya; Horali in Assam; and Tatta Saaru in Ceylon; Tingi in Manipur; the Telugu name is Yerra Chilluwa.