An Ode to the Pink-headed Duck
~ By Panchami Manoo Ukil
It started recently one morning with an innocuous cream biscuit and a lid. The pink strawberry cream filling and the pink lid of the jar were enough to steer a bird-enthusiast’s thought trail to the enigmatic Pink-headed Duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) - a bird whose bright strawberry pink neck and head contrasting with a dark body makes it one of the most beautiful ducks ever.
Since the early days of birding I was always keen to know about this mysterious duck. This duck is believed to be extinct since the 1950’s, (yet a glimmer of hope lurks in naturalists worldwide that it might still be extant somewhere in the tough-to-access riverine swamps of Myanmar.) In fact the book ‘Threatened Birds of India’ says – “This duck is probably extinct, but until the last known areas of its former range are surveyed this cannot be confirmed. Any remaining population is likely to be tiny. It therefore qualifies as Critical.” It further mentions that the Pink-headed Duck was once recorded patchily throughout northern India, with the epicenter of records in “Bengal”, a jurisdiction which was subdivided into Bihar, Orissa and western Assam and also covered Bangladesh. My obsession with this enigmatic pink duck stemmed from reading references to the fact that the bird was seen in Ganjam and Khurda areas of Orissa.
Another reference mentions "In the nineteenth century Bengal was a largely unexplored wilderness...the grassland was the home of the tiger... the limpid waters were largely covered by pink and white lotus flowers and were the home of innumerable species of waterfowl which provided another target for sportsmen. The most beautiful and rarest of these... was the Pink-headed Duck." This statement especially led my imagination to soar to some marshy areas in Khurda - visualisling that among the greens and the colourful water-lilies would be these glorious pink-headed ducks, making for the most splendid imagery painted by nature.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to recently spend some birding time with veteran ornithologist of Orissa Mr. U.N.Dev. Mr. Dev, a war veteran and an ace marksman, has more than 60 years of birding experience on the field in the nooks and crannies of wild habitats in the state. His unique and thrilling experiences along with the first-hand knowledge garnered from the field under the most exacting conditions would be enough to write a fascinating book on birds in the wild. He also had many opportunities to accompany the legendary Dr. Salim Ali to Similipal and Chilika.
A few weeks back, sitting in a boat in Manglajodi, Mr. Dev was rueing the straggling number of winter migrants to the Chilika area. (Chilikalake in Orissa is the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia covering the three districts of Puri, Khurda, and Ganjam.) He recounted the overwhelming numbers of ducks and geese that used to visit the Chilika area, each flock consisting of thousands of birds, flying wing to wing, blanketing the sky and almost shutting out the sun for a few moments. His father had told him stories of the king of Parikud (a part of Chilika) inviting the British officials and the local rajas for shooting and hunting parties in the winter where the trigger-happy shooters would bring down hundreds of these flying ducks easily as there were so many of them. During these visits the sportsmen- shooters would also go looking for the resident ducks - the prized one of course would be the Pink-headed Duck as it was unsurpassed in beauty and colour. Whoever had the most number of this attractive bird in his kitty would preen with pride and be the unanimous winner for the day. Though, of course, the meat of this duck was not considered as table-worthy as the other duck meats because of the lack of flavor.
He recalled having seen the Pink-headed ducks a few times in various areas in Khurda in the early 1940’s probably but never in Chilika. He described the male bird as inordinately beautiful. These ducks were rather slow in movement; they were a reticent breed almost always shying behind foliage in the marshes, wetlands, and small water pools or ‘pokharis’. They were known to be active at night which probably explains their vivid colouring. He said that his father had seen these ducks being sold in New Market in Kolkata in the late 1800’s. This fact has also been mentioned in a book by Douglas Devar which he later gave me to read. The book describes the male and female ducks as “The Pink-headed Duck stands quite alone in colouration among our birds. Its body is as black as ink-the brownish Indian ink; its head is as pink as new blotting paper, in the case of the drake the head is like the same pink blotting paper after it has become faded and soiled, with a long black blot on the crown. Her plumage generally is duller and rustier than the drake's and her bill is black, whereas his is fleshy white; but the general resemblance is close."
Mr. Dev said that rampant hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the main cause of the decline of this beautiful species. Also responsible of course was habitat loss with the gradual conversion of many wetlands into agricultural land. Along with this duck, many other species have also been lost to us over the years. The manipulation of habitats has also led to drastic reduction in the number of wintering birds in the region. He expresses regret at the way the Chilika lake has been devastated due to wrong policies by successive government and the reluctance on the part of the authorities to make any attempts towards redeeming its past glories. He is currently writing a scientific book on the Birds of Orissa which along with precious knowledge about the avifauna of the state also includes a roadmap for conservation and development based on his experiences.
The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.The natural extinction rate simply means the rate of species extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around. Experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species will become extinct each year due to wrong human interventions. Unlike the mass extinction events of geological history, the current extinction challenge is one for which a single species - ours - appears to be almost wholly responsible. This is often referred to as the 6th extinction crisis, after the 5 known extinction waves in geological history. So without arguing about who’s right or wrong or what the exact numbers are, there can little debate that there is, in fact, a very serious biodiversity crisis staring at us on the face. And our beautiful Pink-headed Duck is a sad victim of this crisis.
Richard Thorns who has been looking for the Pink-headed Duck in Myanmar says – “What has always struck me the most about this incredible bird is, I suppose, the fact that for so long in the first part of the 20th Century it had been considered extinct, only to reappear a few years down the line. But it has been a long time now; the gap is widening, unlike the small gap of ten feet that would take the stuffed Pink-headed Duck specimen out of the extinction room at the Paris Natural History museum and back into the area of extant birds. It is a very long ten feet! So here it ends; the heart is big, the spirit is still ever-willing, but the Pink headed Duck remains as tantalizingly and infuriatingly elusive as ever.“
I hope the Pink-headed Duck is extant and is elusively ensconced far away from prying and greedy human eyes in a remote inaccessible place in Myanmar and elsewhere too. Some place where people do not understand that it is rare and coveted and therefore just let it be. Hoping against hope that one day our future generations will know that the duck has actually battled extinction because it was left alone. I know that to see the bird is a wild dream but then nothing stops us from painting even our wildest dreams. This is my dream of these gorgeous birds interpreted from descriptions and illustrations – and I can’t help but quote this poetic ode to their amazing beauty.
tasveer banaye kya koi
kya koi likhe tujhpe kavita
rangon chhandon mein samayegi
kis tarha se itni sundarta …
Painting by Panchami Manoo Ukil
Panchami Manoo Ukil