This showy spoil-sport, so conspicuous in its foxy-red plumage on land or water, and, if anything, more striking in flight, with its broad slowly-beating black-and-white wings making it tri-coloured, is a bird that cannot be overlooked where it is found, and it occurs all over our Indian Empire except in the extreme south of India and Ceylon, where it is rare, Tenasserim, and the islands of the Bay of Bengal. It is a winter visitor in the plains, but breeds in the Himalayas.
Even if it were not so conspicuous by its colouring— and one gets the full benefit of this by its habit of frequenting the most open places—its voice would make its presence known everywhere, especially as it is seldom silent for long, and even when conversing with its beloved mate and unalarmed, has no idea of lowering its trumpet tones, which have something very stirring and picturesque about them.
There is no noticeable difference in the trumpeting call of the sexes, and their colour also looks alike at a little distance; but on close inspection it will be seen that the female has a white face, contrasting with the buff of the rest of the head, which is in both sexes much lighter than the body as a rule. The male also has in some cases a black collar round the neck, which is supposed to be assumed in summer and lost in winter, though in captive birds, at any rate, and probably often in wild ones, the reverse may be the case. Many birds of this species in India are very washed-out in colour, no doubt owing to bleaching, since in England, where the bird is a familiar favourite on ornamental waters, they are always of the beautiful auburn or chestnut tint.
The Brahminy duck, to give this species the name by which it is usually known in India, is a lover of sandy shores and clear open water, and prefers the banks of rivers to any other haunt, being usually seen in pairs. It keeps more on the land than in the water, walking with an upright carriage and very gracefully ; when it does swim it is with the stem high like a goose, and its diving powers are rather limited. It seems to be chiefly an animal feeder in India, devouring small shell-fish and other forms of animal life to be found along the water's edge; it has even the reputation, apparently justified in some cases, of eating carrion; but it admittedly feeds on grain, grass and young corn as well even in India, and in our London parks seems to graze nearly as much as a goose, though there it spends an abnormal amount of its time in the water, no doubt because being pinioned it cannot fly about.
It is not good eating, though it is rendered more tolerable by being skinned, as is the case with so many rank birds of this family; and might be very well left alone by sportsmen if it would only let them alone. This, however, it will not do ; it has a very practical working knowledge of the range of a gun, and gets up just out of shot, trumpeting out a duet with its partner, which naturally puts all the other fowl on the alert. As a remedy for this, Hume recommends shooting a few with the rifle, which so frightens the survivors as to make them keep their distance to some purpose— so far off will they then get up that other fowl do not consider there is anything to worry about, and disregard them.
This warning propensity is evidently clue to natural noisiness and not to public-spiritedness, for the birds are most unsociable by nature, and, although flocks may sometimes be seen with us in winter, in the breeding season the pairs keep strictly separate, and persecute all other water-fowl, of their own species or any other, including even geese. Even in winter, students of the London park water-fowl may notice that the other birds are nervous of them, and even the mandarin, with all his pluck and bounce, shows by his manner that he knows he is taking risks in snatching the bread from the mouth of the ruddy sheldrake.
In Indian limits this bird has only been found breeding at a high elevation in the Himalayas, 10,000 feet and upwards ; the nests are in holes in cliffs, and several are found in the same quarter. The eggs are eight in number as a rule, and creamy-white ; the ducklings mostly sooty-black above and white below ; they will dive for food while in the down, although their parents are strictly surface-feeders. The ruddy sheldrake also breeds from Central Asia west, all along the Mediterranean, and visits China as well as India in winter. In Northern Burma it is very common, and known as Hintha. The Hindustani name Chakwa (with the feminine form Chakwi) is not the only one, Surkhab being also used ; Nir-batha or -koli is the name in South India, Mungh in Sind, Bugri in Bengal, the Telugu name is Bapana Chilluwa, and the Marathi Sarza or Chakrawak.