Erismatura leucocephala

Stiff-tailed Duck.

Erismatura leucocephala.

The remarkable appearance of this duck always attracts attention; it sits very low in the water, often erecting its long thin wiry tail, which balances as it were the big head with its remarkably broad bill, much bulged at the root. When approached it dives in preference to flying, and if it does rise does not usually travel far; the wings are extraordinarily small. The plumage is peculiar but not striking, being of a pencilled brown, sometimes much tinged with chestnut. The head is marked with a lateral streak of white on a blackish ground, and the throat is white, the bill and feet slate-colour. At least, that is the plumage of most of the specimens which turn up in India; the adult male is a really striking-looking bird, with a sky-blue bill and snow-white head and throat, set off by a black crown and neck. Although extremely broad, this bird is hardly longer than a common teal, and its wings are considerably smaller than in that species; yet the weight must be twice as much, and it is a wonder how the bird manages to travel at all. The wings fold up very closely as in a grebe, and are of a plain drab colour without any mark. The tail is not always of the same length, but its wiry character and the scantiness of the coverts at its base are distinctive.

The stiff-tail is a duck of rather unsocial habits and never seen in large flocks ; those found in India have generally been alone or at most in pairs. They are found on rivers as well as in pools, and are probably pretty widely distributed, specimens having occurred from Kashmir to the Calcutta Bazaar. Here I once got a live one, but this unfortunately had one leg hopelessly disabled, and moreover would not or could not eat, so I was reluctantly obliged to make a specimen of it. In spite of its affliction it was so tame that it would plume itself while being held in the hand. Grebes will also do this, so that even in captivity this species retains the grebe-like ways which characterize it when wild. It may also be mentioned that the under plumage, though buff and not white, has the silvery lustre of a grebe's. Very grebe-like was the behaviour of a female procured at Peshawar by Captain Macnab, I. M .S., in 1899. A hawk also tried to " collect" it, but as soon as he made his point above, the duck went under, and after coming up close by dived again, till after about five minutes the hawk went off in disgust. The tail, at full cock when swimming, was straightened out as the bird went down. The call is said to be a grating, quacking note, and the food to consist of small water creatures and vegetable substances. But, as a matter of fact, little has been observed about this bird's habits, though it is widely distri┬Čbuted in a sort of central zone, from the Mediterranean region east to our borders. Personally, I believe it breeds in India, because a specimen shot near Hardoi was moulting and had no quills grown.' None of our winter water-fowl moult while they are with us, so far as I am aware, while the residents can moult at any time they like, having no long journey to take. However, one must not forget that it is in its winter quarters in South Africa that the common swallow moults.

The nest in any case is nothing out of the ordinary, being built among the waterside vegetation and composed of it; but the eggs are, being remarkable for their coarseness of surface and large size in proportion to the bird, though their colour is simply white. The ducklings are dark brown in the down, with white on the under-parts, conspicuous on the throat and sides of neck, and there are some faint white spots on the upper surface.

Indian Sporting Birds
Finn, Frank. Indian Sporting Birds. Edwards, 1915.
Title in Book: 
Erismatura leucocephala
Book Author: 
Frank Finn
Page No: 
Common name: 
Stiff-tailed Duck
White-headed Duck
Oxyura leucocephala

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