OK, so once again, apologies for not writing. So much for my new years’ resolution to do better. I also owe a second apology: the subject of today’s literary masterpiece is not quite a duck, it’s a Shelduck. These birds are still Anseriformes. They occupy a subfamily in that order called Tadorninae, and in terms of size, are somewhere between geese and ducks. They are much larger than ordinary ducks, very much larger. On a recent trip to Cambridgeshire I came across a flock of them, and they’re huge! To be honest, I actually thought they were geese at first. Like geese they were fairly aggressive, and did a good job fighting off the mallards at feeding time.
There are seven species of Shelduck, but the one I’m going to focus on, is the Common Shelduck, because I’ve seen it. Common Shelducks are found across Europe all year round, with large populations in the UK and Germany. There are several migrating flocks which spend their summers in the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas and their winters on the coast of the Mediterranean and as far east as the coast of China.
In terms of appearance the duck and drake are very similar, but the drake of the Common Shelduck (pictured) has a prominent knob at the top of the bill. To me, this is what makes it look like even more like a goose. During the breeding season, they have a strong collective mentality, with breeding pairs often leaving their hatchlings to form larger broods, in the care of one or two adult birds.
The slightly peculiar fact about the Shelduck, is not that they are ducks-but-not-ducks, but that they shed and re-grow wing and tail feathers at the same time. When this happens they are flightless for almost four weeks.
Now, it is implied from what I have read that, other than a few birds hatched outside the normal breeding season, all the Shelducks go through this flightless period at the same time. Personally, I find it hard to accept that an entire species would ground itself for four weeks, and leave itself so open to predators. The flipside to this is that the Shelducks form flocks of several thousand, so their safety and survival is assured in numbers, but I’m still not convinced. If anyone can confirm this one way or the other, I’d be very grateful. Like I said, I can well understand an individual grounding itself to replace feathers, but not the vast majority of Shelducks in a single flock.
So that’s the Common Shelduck, which I think still warrants an entry on this masterpiece of research. I haven’t confirmed yet, but I don’t think the friend who challenged me to write about ten ducks will let me away with writing about the other seven species of Shelduck, so I’d better start looking for another one.