Duck tales

Extinction of the incomparable pink-headed duck could have been avoided had
adequate timely measures been taken, writes Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

The pair of pink-headed ducks painted by H. Gronvold (1908) epitomises the drake’s vernacular name Gulab Lal-Sira
The pair of pink-headed ducks painted by H. Gronvold (1908) epitomises
the drake’s vernacular name Gulab Lal-Sira

"Of all our Indian ducks, this is certainly the most shy as well as secretive, so it is seldom seen except by chance, when a line of elephants are deployed to beat through thick grass or forest when hunting for tiger or big game`85Now cultivation has beaten back jungles and driven the birds to yet remoter and less trodden jungles`85"

— E. C. Stuart Baker, 1909

THe dynamics of extinction of species and evolution of new life forms are well accepted. But when a species gets driven to extinction by factors beyond nature’s design such as the exploding human population, coupled with other factors, it certainly is a cause for concern. The regret over the extinction of the pink-headed duck becomes all the more gnawing when one realises that a golden opportunity to create a viable breeding colony of this species from a flock, discovered per chance by the late Dr Salim Ali, was missed:

"And probably the last living examples of this very lovely bird in captivity were the eleven specimens I was fortunate enough to see, and photograph, in the pens of the late Alfred Ezra near London in November 1929."

From the archival material available today, it is evident that that visual by Salim Ali of this species in the man-created, "natural" habitat is the only photo exhibit in the world. The photograph was naturally in black and white, later done in colour by Frank Todd in 1996, but the whereabouts of the original exposed film remain a mystery. But nevertheless, Jean Delacour, a French ornithologist, and later the curator of the Los Angeles Museum (USA), did get to know of the living flock in the United Kingdom.

A flock of 11 pink-heads photographed by Salim Ali (1929)
A flock of 11 pink-heads photographed by Salim Ali (1929)

Soon he acquired a few birds from Ezra for his own bird collection at Cleres (France) and it seems certain now that "the last pink-headed duck which died in 1936 (skin preserved by the Smithsonian) was in the Delacour collection"; and, sad to say, living as a captive fugitive in an alien land.

Believe it or not, the pink-headed duck had its home in India alone. Its stronghold was north of the Ganges in Bihar, Bengal and Assam, north of the Brahmaputra, mostly in the dense jungles, running along the Himalayan foothills where flocks of 20 to 40 could be flushed from reed banks bordering streams. But smaller parties were fairly common in Orissa, central and southern India up to Chennai and a few in northwest Burma, bordering Arunachal. And there are records of few stragglers from Lucknow and of seven sightings from Ropar and Gurdaspur, along the Sutlej around the 1890s.

The elusive nature of the pink-headed duck was pegged by Stuart Baker (Fauna of British India, 1929) when he stated that, "Shillingford is almost the only person who has taken the eggs of this lovely duck`85makes a nest of grass and weeds in tangled undergrowth close to the edge of forest pools or swamps, where humanity never enters`85the eggs are unlike any other duck`85having the satin texture and intense gloss."

As is the rule in the bird kingdom, the male is a bit stouter and wears a more colourful plumage than the female. Now the pink-headed drake’s whole head, neck and even the mandibles are a beautiful rose-pink, which gives rise to its apt vernacular name, "Gulab Lal-Sira"!

The lower half of its neck is blackish-brown and its upper body, a glossy, deep chocolate-black. The edges of its flight feathers are tipped rosy-white but the underside of the wings is a delicate pink so that in flight, the bird presents a vanishing, rosy-pink streak.

In all probability, what hastened the bird’s extinction was the unwitting assertion by Surgeon-Major T. C. Jerdon (Indian Army), the acknowledged Father of Indian ornithology (1811-1870) that the pink-headed duck "is excellent eating".

So what survives of the bird today is approximately 80 preserved skins in various museums, the oldest specimen (1825) being in Paris and the last in the Smithsonian in the USA (1936). As for a true-to-life and a full-bodied likeness of a pair of the pink-headed duck, may be the painting made by H. Gronvold in 1908, is matchless.

The extinction of a species is forever. In the recorded history of faunal extinctions in India, the pink-headed duck was the second. And let that be the last.