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Pink-headed Duck: Is It Still Alive?

Pink-headed Duck: Is It Still Alive?

Pink-headed duck has gone extinct due to hunting and habitat loss. It was last seen in the wild in 1949.

Pink-headed Duck
An illustration of Pink-headed Duck by Carl D'Silva from Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds. Courtesy of Bombay Natural History Society.

By Mithu Das   September 18, 2016

The conclusion to be drawn is either that the Pink-headed Duck has indeed become extinct as was feared, or that if perchance there are any lingering survivors they keep strictly confined to the seclusion of some remote and inaccessible areas. Salim Ali

Pink-headed duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea was last seen in the wild in 1949. Since then it has never been sighted again in its former habitats which were mainly distributed in India but scarcely in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is thought that the bird has gone extinct due to habitat loss and hunting. However, it has not yet been declared extinct by IUCN or Birdlife International who consider it critically endangered because some of its former habitats have not been yet completely surveyed. Ornithologists and birders are therefore urgently requested to search for this species in remote wetlands in Northern Myanmar and Northeast India.

A group of Pink-headed ducks at Alfred Ezra's Foxwaren Park, England
A group of Pink-headed ducks at Alfred Ezra's Foxwaren Park, England. This photograph was probably shot by Salim Ali in 1929. It was colored by Frank Todd for his book "Natural History of the Waterfowl"(1996). These ducks were believed to be 'came from southern Goalpara and eastern Rangpur, near the confluence of Tista and Brahmaputra Rivers' (S. D. Ripley). Courtesy of Oriental Bird Images.

In Northeast India, Pink-headed duck was recorded (1888-1932) in Assam and Manipur where it was considered to be uncommon. According to Allan Hume, it was found, although scarcely, all over Assam from Sylhet—now in Bangladesh—to Sadiya. However, it had never been recorded from Cachar district. Confirmed records of sighting, catching or hunting of these ducks came from Nagaon, Dhuburi, Sadiya and Goalpara. In the early or mid 1920s, nearly one dozen Pink-headed ducks were captured in southern Goalpara and shipped across to England. Salim Ali claimed to have seen these ducks in Alfred Ezra's Foxwaren Park during his visit to London in 1929. He had probably taken some photographs of these ducks.

Apart from Northeast India, Pink-headed duck was recorded from more than fifty places in India—from West Bengal to Punjab in the north and to Tamil Nadu in the south and Madhya Pradesh in the central India to Maharashtra in the west. However, highest sightings of these ducks had been recorded in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. It was thought that these birds were probably common in Bengal and Bihar where they'd been occasionally seen in groups of 12-30 birds. Besides, they could be often seen for sale in Calcutta markets in winters in the late ninetieth century. This evidence clearly suggests that Pink-headed duck could be well distributed—as it was presumed before—in the north of the Ganges and throughout many parts of Bengal. However, it was considered to be rare elsewhere. (In Assam, although few sightings had been reported, ornithologists believed that a viable population may have also thrived here.)

Pink-headed duck was known to be a rare species since the time John Latham described it in 1790. However, it was not known why this species was not as common as other ducks. It usually preferred to live in solitary lakes and polls surrounded by forests and high grass jungles and, unlike most other Anatidae members, it was hardly seen foraging or living with other ducks. Allan Hume and C. Marshall wrote (1881) that during the breeding season (June-July) they were found in pairs and in winter kept commonly in small parties of from 4–8 or 10, but sometimes seen in flocks of from 20–30.

Despite being a rare species, Pink-headed duck had been living in India for centuries. (Nearly ninety per cent of its habitat distributed in India.) And one observer had correctly noted how 'it survived for so long is probably due to the fact that the centre of its distribution was a large plain crossed by deep, crocodile-infested rivers, heavily inundated by floods and inhabited sparsely by humans, but commonly by tigers.' Unfortunately, during the second half of the nineteenth century its numbers started to decline due to habitat loss and hunting. It was pushed back by increasing cultivation from places where it was once almost common; this referring to forest clearance 'cultivation has beaten back the jungle and driven the birds to yet remoter and less trodden jungles' (Birdlife International, 2001). Salim Ali wrote in a paper in 1960 that the phenomenal growth and spread of human population in India in the bird's erstwhile habitats and the consequent reclamation for cultivation of more and more of the swampy grass jungles it loved, have contributed to seal its doom.

This specimen of Pink-headed Duck is preserved in the Museum of Naturalis, Leiden.
This specimen of Pink-headed Duck is preserved in the Museum of Naturalis, Leiden. Courtesy of Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

Hunting was another cause that drove this bird into extinction. Ironically, Pink-headed duck had been living in a time when hunting was practised by a large number of people, locals and foreigners alike. It was mainly killed for its pink feathers and meat but often captured alive to sell in the markets. Many observers had witnessed seeing these birds sold at Calcutta, Lucknow and Madras markets in the late nineteenth and early tweentieth century. Needless to say, it was a favorite game bird for many hunters. Stuart Baker in 1908 wrote in his book how his father—who had possessed several of these birds' skins amongst his collections—hunted these birds in the wild: 'Most of these ducks had been shot by him in Maldah and Purneah. At the end of a day's shoot, when promiscuous firing had become the order, one or two of these ducks would often be added to the bag, getting up in front of the line of elephants as they worked through country in which there were any small pools and jhils.'

The last Pink-headed duck was reportedly killed by C. M. Inglis in 1935 in Darbhanga, Bihar. However, reports of unconfirmed sightings had been kept coming till 1949. L. P. Singh, in 1967, reported that he had shot one bird at Manroopa Lake (Bahadurpur, Bihar) in 1947 and had seen several of them again in 1948-49. This was probably the last reliable sight record of the duck. In 1956, it was protected under wildlife laws for the first time (after three decades of its disappearance in the wild!). It is often alleged that, despite being a rare species for so long, few studies were carried out on this species. Sadly, 'it was little known to most ornithologists in Bengal.'

It is thought that Pink-headed duck could be still living in some remote parts in Northern Myanmar, although expeditions led by Birdlife International and other organisations in recent years has proved to be fruitless. Richard Thorn has been searching for this bird in Myanmar since 2009. Locals often reported Thorn that they've seen this duck many times, although after leading several expeditions to the area Thorn was not able to find it.

Red-crested Pochard
Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina is a common duck of our lakes and rivers. This bird—when seen from distance—could be easily mistaken for Pink-headed duck. Needless to say, recent sightings of Pink-headed duck in north-east India were the result of confusion with this duck. Image ©Omprakash Hatua.


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