It’s an experience you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. There you are tramping along the shore of a lake or jheel on a winter morning when from high in the clear blue sky, you hear “whizzooom! whizzooom! whizzoooom!” It sounds like a squadron of fighter jets streaking overhead. They are tiny black specks in formation, zooming over and then banking around.
Then suddenly, they look as if they’ve been attacked en masse as they begin to tumble out of the sky, somersaulting downwards, apparently out of control, heading for the water. Just metres above, they suddenly regain control, arching their backs gracefully, tails and wings flared, braking to a thistle-light touchdown on the water. They bob around, wagging their tails as if in approval of a job well done, murmuring to one another. Here they will spend the winter, snoozing, snacking, and sleeping-in late — heads tucked into their bodies.
Of the 30-40 species of wildfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) that have been recorded in India, just a handful — about half a dozen — are resident birds. Some, like the pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea), with its candy-floss head and brown body, have been deemed extinct (last seen in 1935). Others, like the white-winged wood duck (Asarcornsis scutulata), are very rare (found in jungle ponds in Assam). And yet others, like the “vagrant” ultra-glamorous Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), thrill birders by making a rare appearance (such as in February 2021) in Tinsukia, Assam.
Ducks are divided into various categories. There are the dipping ducks or dabblers, which upend (submerge head to feed) in the water and filter food particles from the surface. Diving ducks like pochards are heavier-boned and squat and dive down to the bottom and get their food. Tree ducks, like the nakta (Sarkidiornis melanotos), nest in holes and hollows in tree trunks. Shelducks, like the raw-silk clad Brahminy duck (aka ruddy shelduck) (Tadorna ferruginea), are big goose-like ducks.
All ducks have flat beaks equipped with filtration plates and paddle-like feet set back on the body. They have a direct, swift flight pattern and a wacky motor-horn quack. Most face a barrage of guns from hunters and poachers when they fly over and settle in jheels, lakes, rivers, and other waterbodies all over the country — even some sanctuaries are not sacrosanct. Most of our winter migrants fly in from their breeding grounds in Central Asia and Siberia — as much as 8,000 km one-way. They arrive in on the Indian subcontinent by August and will stay on till April the following year. Let’s meet some of the more common residents and visitors to our freshwater bodies.