96. THE RUDDY SHELD-DUCK.
Casarca casarca, (LINNAEUS).*
Primaries uniformly black.
Axillaries and under wing-coverts white.
Speculum metallic green or bronze, with the outer web of the adjoining secondaries chestnut. Tail wholly black.
Sexes alike, except that the male assumes a black collar in the breeding season.
VERNACULAR NAMES :—Surchab, Lal, Chakwa, Hind.; Mungh, Sind; Bugri, Beng.; Sarza, Chakrawak, Mahr. ; Neer-bathoo, Neer-kolee, South India ; Bassana, Chilluwa, Tel.; Kesar-pan-dia, Panda-hansa, Uriya; Hintha, Burm.
THE Ruddy Sheld-Duck, or Brahminy Duck, is a winter visitor to every portion of the Indian Empire except the southern portions of Tenasserim, and even there it is by no means certain that it does not occur, for the late Mr. Davidson, a most practised observer, believed that he saw a straggler of this species on one of the islands of the Mergui Archipelago. I did not myself observe this Duck in the Shan States, but Major G. Rippon informs me that it does occur there, although it is not common. It has been observed in Ceylon, but it appears to be rare in that island.
The Ruddy Sheld-Duck is a bird of a very limited range of migration. In the Himalayas, it is probable that many of these Ducks do not migrate at all in the ordinary sense, but merely move from one altitude to another according to season. It is also most probable that the numerous Ducks of this species that visit the plains of India retire to breed no further north than the Himalayas, and the adjacent parts of Tibet. Indeed, it is a matter for surprise that some of these Ducks do not breed in the plains of India, for they breed in Algeria and Palestine, apparently at no great elevation.
The Ruddy Sheld-Duck is a permanent resident in Southern and Eastern Europe and in Northern Africa. It extends throughout Asia, ranging in summer up to about the 55th degree of north latitude, and wintering in India and Southern China.
This well-known Duck arrives in the northern portions of the Empire in October, but it does not generally reach the southern parts of India till November. It leaves again in April, but many birds appear to delay their departure till May.
Although these Ducks migrate into and from India in flocks, they are, during their residence in the plains, almost invariably found in pairs or in a collection of pairs, each couple seeming to act independently of the other couples. They frequent the sandbanks of the larger rivers by preference, but they are often found on the clean banks of lakes, and even on the margins of extensive swamps. By choice they seem to prefer sweet water, but they are sometimes seen on brackish pieces of water. They swim very little, and they obtain their food almost entirely on land. When on the water, however, they swim well, and can dive when driven to it. They walk about with ease, and are strong flyers.
Brahminy Ducks avoid cover of any sort, and seldom rest except on bare spots where they can see a long distance round them. They are remarkably wary, and difficult to approach as a rule, and they not only exercise caution on their own behalf, but they give warning to all the other wild fowl in their vicinity by loud and persistent calls. The ordinary cry of this Duck consists of a loud double note.
The Ruddy Sheld-Duck feeds chiefly at or near the water's edge, and does not apparently go inland to any distance. Its food is very varied, consisting of young grass and corn, water-plants, shells, worms and spawn. It has been accused of eating carrion, but probably does so only on rare occasions. Its flesh has a rank, fishy taste, and is hardly worth eating. When properly skinned, however, before cooking, Mr. Hume tells us that it forms a very tolerable addition to a stew.
Seebohm thus describes the habits of this Sheld-Duck :—" It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful sight than a pair of Ruddy Sheldrakes with their young, the duck enticing them to follow her in order to hide amongst the reeds, whilst the drake swims about backwards and forwards in an agitated manner, uttering a rather loud and monotonous cry, intermediate in sound between that of the syllables kark and kerk. I once surprised a brood of half-grown Ruddy Sheldrakes, at some little distance from the water's edge, on the banks of Lake Tuzla, a salt lagoon connected with the Black Sea. I tried to catch them before they reached the water, but they were too quick for me ; meanwhile the old birds flew round and round within easy shot, uttering their peculiar cry, and trying to draw off our attention from their brood, Like the Common Sheldrake, the Ruddy Sheldrake differs in its habits from the more typical Ducks, one of its peculiarities being, that when the young are hatched, the drake takes his share in looking after them. He does not moult into summer dress, and consequently is not obliged to desert his mate at the most critical period of her annual duties, to hide himself in the thick morasses."
The Ruddy Sheld-Duck breeds abundantly in the high central portion of the interior of the Himalayas, in Ladak, Turkestan and Tibet, at elevations varying from 12,000 to 16,000 feet. Although ducklings have frequently been observed in these countries in June, the eggs do not appear to have been taken by any European. The nests are said to be placed in holes of cliffs.
Eggs of this species are decidedly rare. In the British Museum there are some that were laid in captivity in the Zoological Gardens of London, but only three taken from the nests of wild birds. One of these was taken by the late Mr. Salvin in Algeria, and he thus described the manner in which the nest was discovered:—" Though this bird is numerous in all the salt lakes of the elevated plains, its egg is one of the most difficult to obtain. One nest only rewarded our labours. The rarity of the eggs is hardly so surprising, when the situation chosen by this bird for its nest is considered. It selects a hole or crevice of a cliff for its breeding place, and associates with the Raven, the Black Kite, and Egyptian Vulture during the period of the reproduction of its young. Almost immediately on encamping at Ain Djendeli we used daily to see a pair of Ruddy Shieldrakes pass over our tents, their direction always being back¬wards and forwards between the cliffs to the south of us and the small marsh between us and the lake. After careful investigation, the nest was discovered to be in a hole in the face of a rock, which required all the skill of Mohamed and all our appliances of ropes, etc., to reach. The result was four hard-set eggs, which are now in the collections of Messrs. Tristram, Simpson, J. Wolley and myself. Though the Arabs were aware of the habits of this bird, we did not succeed in obtaining any more eggs."
Canon Tristram, also writing of Northern Africa, says :—" At Bou Guizoun I captured some half-dozen nestlings of various ages in the downy state, some of them scarcely more than a day old; and yet the only place where they could possibly have bred, and where we had procured a nest three days previously, was a range of cliffs more than twelve miles distant."
Messrs. Elwes and Buckley found this Duck common in the Dobrudscha, and write:—"In its habits it resembles the Common Shell-drake, but is more fond of fresh water and of inland ranges of rocks, whither it resorts in the breeding-season. The nest is very difficult to find, as it is always in a hole, sometimes in the middle of a corn-field, and the male bird keeps watch near by to call the female off her eggs when any one approaches."
Lastly Colonel Prjevalsky tells us how these birds nest in Mongolia. He remarks :—" During migration these Ducks assemble in large flocks of over a hundred, but never mix with any other kind. Each pair keep very strictly to themselves; and probably such a bond is formed for life. During the breeding-season the males very often fight, and attack even Drakes of other species of Ducks. They build in holes or clefts in the ground, and sometimes even in the fireplaces of villages deserted by the Mongols; and in the latter places the female birds, while hatching, get almost quite black with soot. The male apparently does not assist the female in hatching; but as soon as the young are hatched, it most vigilantly watches them."
The eggs are creamy white, very smooth, and with a considerable amount of gloss. They are almost a perfect ellipse in shape. They measure 2.7 by 1.9.
The adult male has the head buff, the front portion paler and frequently whitish. The whole neck, the mantle, the back, the sides of the breast and the whole lower plumage are chestnut, the abdomen tinged with vinous. The axillaries and the under wing-coverts are white. The uppermost scapulars are chestnut, the concealed lower feathers white or ashy. The lower back is buff, vermiculated with black. The rump, the upper tail-coverts, and the tail are black. The wing-coverts are white, frequently with a buff tinge. The primaries and their coverts are black. The outer secondaries are metallic green or coppery bronze on the outer, largely white on the inner, web. The remaining longer secondaries are chestnut on the outer, more or less ashy on the inner, web.
The adult male has a narrow black ring round the neck during the breeding season, and this ring is often present on birds when they first arrive in India in October, but is soon lost. It is resumed again before leaving in March.
The adult female resembles the adult male, but never assumes the black ring round the neck. The front part of the head often, but not always, is paler than in the male. The feathers of the chestnut parts of the plumage usually have pale tips.
Ducklings, after changing from the down plumage, resemble the adult female; but the scapulars, the upper back and the inner secondaries are brown, vermiculated with rufous. The tail is indistinctly barred with rufous and tipped with buff.
Male : length about 26 ; wing 15 ; tail 6. Female : length about 23 ; wing 14; tail 5 1/2. The bill is black ; irides dark brown; legs and feet very dark brown. Weight up to about 4 1/4 lb.
* Casarca rutila of the British Museum Catalogue.