122. Erismatura leucocephala


Erismatura leucocephala, (SCOPOLI).

Primaries nearly uniform drab brown, with darker tips. Axillaries white. Under tail-coverts cross-barred. Base of the upper mandible much swollen.

Tail composed of narrow, stiff feathers, projecting fully three inches beyond their coverts.

MALE:—The whole head, except the crown, pure white. FEMALE :—Only the chin, the throat, and a broad band under the eye white.


THE Stiff-tailed Duck has been obtained several times in India, but in places so remote from each other that we may safely predict that it will eventually be observed over the whole of Northern India.

The first Indian-killed specimen was shot by Mr. F. Field. He says of this : —" I shot this bird on the 28th of October at the ' old nullah,' about a mile from the Civil Station of Loodhiana, Punjab. It was sitting alone in a pool. I stalked up close behind some reeds, and then showed myself, expecting to see it fly. All it did was to cock its little stiff, thin pointed tail, and swim off in a quiet way for some ten yards. Its appearance, while swimming with its tail turned upward, was most peculiar. I tried to frighten it into flying, but it would not rise, so I shot it while swimming."

The next recorded specimen was obtained by Mr. W. N. Chill in the Najafgarh jhil near Delhi. A third was also obtained by this gentleman near the same locality on the 28th of October of the same year. He subsequently got two more Ducks of this species near Faruknagger. Mr. Lean of the 5 th Bengal Cavalry shot a bird of this species in the Pilibheet District. Mr. T. Bomford was fortunate enough to acquire a specimen of this Duck in February at Multan Keengurh on the bank of the Indus river.

In the British Museum there is a skin of this species which was obtained at Peshawar in March by General Kinloch, and another at Delhi by Lieut. J. H. Grant in January.

Mr. F. Finn procured two specimens of this Duck in the Calcutta market, and he informs us that Capt. E. D. White shot one between Lucknow and Bareilly on the 22nd of January, in heavy moult; also that Capt. H. J. Sherwood, obtained three specimens in December in the Ganges Kadar, 20 miles south of Roorki, and that Lieut. C. R. Bushe met with one bird of this species at Sialkote, Punjab, in February.

The distribution of the Stiff-tailed Duck is very similar to that of the Marbled Duck. It appears to be migratory, but to no great extent. The birds that visit India probably come from Turkestan. It occurs in Spain ; on both the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean, straggling sometimes into Central Europe, and is found through Palestine and South-western Asia as far as Turkestan. It is also said to occur in Southern Siberia.

This Duck does not appear to be common anywhere, and its history can only be arrived at by the joining together of fragmentary notes. Mr. A. B. Brooke, writing of this bird in Sardinia, says :— "They were not numerous, and seemed to go singly or in pairs; and I never saw more than two together, more frequently single birds. I watched a fine old male one day, for a long time, feeding by himself in the middle of a small lake, but always safely out of shot; he was diving strongly and vigorously, dashing himself under the water, where he remained a considerable time. Their peculiar attitude in the water, along with their short, broad, pale-blue bill, gives them a most quaint appearance."

Mr. J. Whitehead observed this Duck in Corsica. He writes :—" The first of these curious Ducks I shot on 14th April; it was a male. On the 7 th May, in the same pond, I noticed two males and three females. The males were rushing after one another, every now and then stopping short beside the females, and hoisting their very peculiar tails straight in the air, spreading out every feather to its utmost, until the tails looked exactly like a hand with all the fingers spread out. They were still in the same place on 28th May and, no doubt, had nests."

Canon Tristram tells us that on the Halloula Lake, in Northern Africa, "we found two nests of the White-headed Duck (Erismatura mersa) among the sedge, containing, the one three, the other eight eggs. These are very large for the size of the bird, almost perfectly elliptical in shape, and a line longer and wider than those of the Velvet Scoter, of an extremely rough texture, unlike that of any other Duck, more resembling the egg of the Bean-Goose, but far more coarsely grained, and of a dull white colour. The habits and flight of the bird are more like those of a Grebe than a Duck; it often saves itself by diving, and remains under water for a considerable time."

Writing of Transylvania, Messrs. Dan-ford and Harvie Brown say:— " This curious Duck, which we found in Mezoseg, is not very common. We met with a flock of nine or ten birds at a small reedy lake near Zah ; but, owing to the difficulty of paddling the wretched square-ended canoes or punts (csonak), the only substi¬tutes for boats in the country, we found great difficulty in getting near them, and for some days only succeeded in shooting one male, and that at very long range. A couple of days before our departure, however, we were more fortunate; the birds were tamer, and let us get a number of long shots, by which we killed three more males and a female. They never attempted to leave the lake, but after a short rapid flight pitched again, generally about the same place. They swam very fast, keeping their stiff woodpecker-like tails erect at right angles with the body, and when wounded, though they dived constantly, showed no disposition to escape, like other Ducks, by hiding among the reeds, but, on the contrary, avoided them. The bill of the male, when newly killed, is of a beautiful pure ultramarine, this colour extending even to the interior of the mouth. It soon fades, being merely connected with a thin, easily moved membrane ; and in twenty-four hours the bill loses its brilliant appearance, turning to a brownish grey."

Mr. F. Finn tells us that a captive specimen in Calcutta floated low in the water, but not submerged, and the tail was kept more or less raised above the level of the back.

The authors I have quoted regarding the habits of this Duck, seem agreed that this bird, when swimming, holds its tail more or less erect, but we find Mr. Abel Chapman telling us that the tail of this Duck is carried under water as a rudder. He and Mr. W. J. Buck in their charming book, " Wild Spain," say :—

" Presently the binocular rested on six of the most extraordinary wild-fowl we ever met with—gambolling and splashing about on the water, chasing each other, now above now beneath its surface like -a school of porpoises; they appeared half birds, half water-tortoises, with which the lagoon abounds. We were well sheltered by a fringe of sedges, and presently the strangers entered a small reed-margined bight, swimming very deep, only their turtle-shaped backs and heavy heads in sight. Here we crept down on them, and as they sat, splashing and preening in the shallow water, stopped three—two dead, the third escaping, winged. They proved to be a duck and drake of the White-fronted Duck, Erismatura mersa— heavily built diving-ducks, round in the back, broad and flat in the chest, with small wings like a Grebe, and long, stiff tails like a Cormorant—the latter, being carried under water as a rudder, is not visible when the bird is swimming. The enormously swollen bill of the drake— pale waxen blue in colour—completed as singular a picture of a feathered fowl as the writer ever came across: they were, in fact, no less remarkable in form and colour, now we had them in hand, than they had at first appeared in the water."

The eggs of this Duck, of which there is a large series in the British Museum from Spain, Algeria, the Dobrudscha and Southern Russia, are well described by Canon Tristram in his note, above quoted. I have only to add that many of the eggs have a very pale tinge of green. They are out of all proportion to the size of the bird, and measure from 2.6 to 2.8 in length, and from 1.95 to 2.05 in breadth. Most of the eggs are truly elliptical, but a few are slightly pointed at one end.

The perfectly adult male has the crown of the head black. With this exception, the whole head is white, followed by a broad black collar which covers nearly the whole neck. The upper part of the breast, its sides, and the whole of the sides of the body are closely cross-barred with rich chestnut-brown and black. The lower breast and the abdomen are brown, each feather broadly tipped with satin-white or very pale grey. These tips fail to conceal the main brown portion of the feathers, and the lower plumage presents the appearance of being barred, in a very irregular manner, with brown and grey. The under tail-coverts are pale fulvous, cross-barred with black. The mantle is reddish brown, closely vermiculated with blackish. The back, the scapulars, and the long flank-feathers, which reach nearly to the tip of the upper tail-coverts, are closely vermiculated and speckled with black and pale fulvous. The rump is cross-barred with black and grey. The upper tail-coverts are chestnut; the tail blackish brown. The upper wing-coverts are brown, speckled with fulvous. The primaries are pale drab-brown, rather darker on the outer web and at the tip than on the inner web. The outer secondaries are of much the same colour as the primaries, but the inner, long secondaries are much darker brown. The outer web of all the secondaries is mottled with fulvous. The axillaries are pure white; the under wing-coverts are mixed ashy and white.

Younger males differ from the adult males, above described, in having the feathers of the crown brown, often tipped with fulvous. The breast-feathers are broadly tipped with very bright golden-fulvous, without a trace of black bars. The hindneck is dark brown, but the other parts of the broad collar round the neck are grey or fulvous, closely barred with dark brown. The upper plumage is of a richer fulvous, and the lower plumage is often suffused with rich golden brown. Males in this state of plumage often have the upper tail-coverts barred as in the female; not chestnut, as in the adult male.

The series of males of this species in the British Museum, which bear dated labels, were procured from December to March, and the un-dated specimens appear to be birds in ordinary winter plumage. Many of these exhibit one or two tiny white feathers mixed with the dark ones on the crown. It is difficult to account for the presence of these white feathers, except on the supposition that in summer the drake acquires a white crown, in place of the dark one. That birds in this plumage have not yet been observed is not remarkable, seeing how little is known of many of the common Ducks in summer plumage. The Stiff-tailed Duck is at all times a rare bird, occurs in countries where observers are not numerous, and the drake may well have been overlooked in summer, even by those naturalists who have found the nest.

The adult female differs from the male, chiefly in respect to the colour of the head. The whole of the forehead and crown, to a point below the eye, are rich brown. A broad white band runs from the base of the upper mandible, on either side, to the back of the head, followed below by a broad brown band. The chin and throat, and the whole space between these brown bands, are pure white. The hindneck is brown and the broad collar round the neck is grey or fulvous, closely barred with dark brown as in the male. The other parts of the plumage and the wings do not differ from the same parts in the male, except that the upper tail-coverts, are cross-barred like the rump, not plain chestnut.

Male : length about 17 ; wing 6 1/2; tail 4. Female : length about 16 ; wing 6 ; tail 3 1/2. The bill in old drakes is blue; in females and young males, dull plumbeous. The irides are dark brown. The legs and feet are bluish black. The weight of this Duck does not appear to have been recorded.

A Manual Of The Game Birds Of India(water Birds)
Oates, Eugene Wifliam. A manual of the game birds of India. Vol.2. 1899.
Title in Book: 
122. Erismatura leucocephala
Spp Author: 
Book Author: 
Eugene William Oates
Page No: 
Common name: 
Stiff Tailed Duck
White-headed Duck
Oxyura leucocephala
Vol. 2

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