The jolly little cotton-teal, smallest of Indian ducks, is not a teal properly speaking, and is indeed sometimes considered to be a kind of goose; this, however, is also wide of the mark, and the bird and its few relatives really stand very much alone, their nearest aliy probably being the nukta.
In fact, the male's coloration is very much that of the nukta drake in miniature, the lustrous green of the upper-parts and wings contrasting with the general white hue of the head and under-parts and the grey flanks ; but the broad black necklace is very distinctive, as is also the white patch on the pinion- quills, only noticeable in flight, but then very conspicuous. The female is brown above and shades into white below; there is a dark eye-streak as well as a dark cap, and the neck has dark specklings running into cross pencilling below ; she is also like a miniature nukta in colour, but the resemblance in this case is to the immature plumage of the big bird. On the water she looks all brown, and is not conspicuous ; the male, among leaves, may also be very unobtrusive, his green back and white head giving the impression of water-lilies with white flowers—this is not mere theory, for T have made this mistake myself, having at first taken the heads of the drakes of a flock of cotton-teal for flowers, and not noticed the females at all. Young males are like females ; old birds in undress differ from them by retaining the green-and-white wings.
The beak of the cotton-teal is very short and goose-like, but the tail is long for a duck's, and the bird, when nervous, frequently wags it with a quick quivering action. The legs are short and the feet large, and the birds swim and dive well, often diving on alarm; they do not, I think, regularly dive for food, judging from their hesitation when they do so.
Cotton-teal are found over the Empire generally in well watered and wooded districts; they are naturally therefore not to be found in the dry parts of the North-west.
The district where the species is most numerous is Bengal, where it is called Ghangarial or Ghangani, but it penetrates even to the Andamans and is well known in Ceylon.
It likes weedy places, and small rather than large pieces of water, and may be found even on wayside ditches, and bush-surrounded pits ; it is generally seen in pairs or small parties of less than a dozen, though Mr. E. C. S. Baker has seen as many as a hundred in a flock. Its flight is very fast, and at the same time it is an adept at twisting and dodging; Hume never saw it taken by the great foe of water-fowl, the peregrine falcon, the tiny duck side-skidding from the stoop most dexterously, and being below water before the enemy had recovered itself. The flight is generally low, but when thoroughly frightened the birds will go higher.
The only weak point of the cotton-teal, in fact, is its walking powers ; it is very seldom seen on land, and when it tries to go fast or to turn round is apt to fall down ; but it is not correct to say it cannot walk at all, as when not hurried it moves on land like other ducks, though slowly and clumsily. This leg-weakness is curious, as it is a perching-bird, roosting and building in trees, so that one would expect it to be at least as strong in the legs as other water-fowl, the perchers being usually good walkers also.
The food of the cotton-teal is mainly vegetable; it seems to feed almost entirely on the surface, and pecks rather than bibbles in the usual duck fashion ; it does not stand on its head and investigate the bottom like other ducks. As food it is no better than a common house-pigeon, and as it is so very small, only weighing about ten ounces, and is very tame in many places, it is commonly thought hardly worth shooting, besides which it is such a nice little bird that shooting it is rather like firing at a robin or a squirrel; it does not seem right to make game of it. The breeding season does not begin before the end of June, and lasts till August; the birds moult after this, and the drake has his undress plumage in the winter, unlike most other ducks. Holes in buildings as well as holes in trees may be utilized for nesting, and there is reason to believe that the parents, at any rate the female, carry down the little brown and white ducklings like the whistler. The eggs are like miniature nukta's eggs, remarkable for their smoothness and yellowish-white colour; ten is the usual number of the sitting.
The note of the male is one of the noteworthy peculiarities of this pretty little creature; he often calls on the wing, his peculiar cackle being imitated by several native names, such as Lerriget-perriget or Merom-derebet among the Kols, and the Burmese Kala gat. The Uriya name is Dandana, and Gargurra is used in Hindustani as well as Girri, Girria, or Gurja.
East of India this bird ranges to Celebes and China and reappears as a slightly larger but otherwise indistinguishable race, as far off as Australia.