Bird of the Month

The Oldie - - NEWS - by john mcewen il­lus­trated by carry akroyd

How of­ten a coastal win­ter train jour­ney is made mem­o­rable by the flag-fly­ing glimpse of a shel­duck (Tadorna tadorna) along the tide­line or far out on mud­flats.

It is the pied plumage, ex­cep­tion­ally the same for male and female, which gives its name (from the Dutch sheld, ‘var­ie­gated’), al­though shell­fish do form a large part of its diet. Shel­duck are sturdy (2lbs), se­date, slow-winged birds and, al­though clas­si­fied as a duck, are placed in bird guides among the geese.

They have none of the low-slung, stream­lined and fly­ing ur­gency of duck. Col­lo­quial names, such as skeel goose, links goose and ringer goose, long ago made the as­so­ci­a­tion.

The pre­dom­i­nance of white is what catches the eye. A closer view re­veals the strik­ing ar­range­ment of broad, rust-or­ange, breast band, back and un­der-tail; bot­tle-green head and wing flashes (spec­ula), black pin­ions, a seal­ing-wax scar­let bill and longish pink legs, which they stamp to ex­pose lug­worms. Per­haps it is the promi­nence of the Mus­covy duck knob at the base of the drake’s bill which makes it seem a dec­o­ra­tive farm­yard bird out of its el­e­ment.

The shel­drake lacks the po­etry of a wild bird, al­though wild it is; and, for all its flam­boy­ance, it has been dis­dained by po­ets and wild­fowlers. Its un­mu­si­cal call is a laugh­ing ‘ag-ag-ag’ and its meat, ac­cord­ing to the sport­ing nat­u­ral­ist Brian Ve­sey-fitzger­ald, tastes of paint.

When a Nor­folk war­den was asked by a jour­nal­ist the best way to cook a shel­duck he thought the man was tak­ing the mickey, so he face­tiously an­swered in kind: place the duck in the oven along­side a brick, he told the jour­nal­ist, when you can get a fork into the brick the bird will be done. His joke ‘recipe’ was duly re­ported as a gen­uine piece of coun­try lore.

The rea­son why shel­duck have no need for cam­ou­flage is that they nest in bur­rows. Th­ese bur­rows are usu­ally on the shore­line, but they can be as far as six miles from water. Ducks that fail to find a bur­row will some­times lay their eggs in an ex­ist­ing nest. The un­sus­pect­ing hosts can find them­selves par­ent­ing a dou­ble-brood of more than thirty duck­lings.

Shel­duck are no­tably com­mu­nal birds. When the duck­lings have left the nest, up to a hun­dred at a time can con­gre­gate in ‘crèches’ un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a sin­gle adult pair.

In July, most of the 180,000 Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion re­sponds to a sim­i­lar in­stinct for safety in num­bers by mi­grat­ing to moult on the vast tidal flats of the Heligoland Bight, off the Ger­man North Sea coast, op­po­site Lin­colnshire.

The strat­egy mis­fired in Au­gust 1954 when the RAF used the area for bomb­ing prac­tice, in­ad­ver­tently killing thou­sands of the birds. The Air Min­istry recog­nised its mis­take and agreed not to use live am­mu­ni­tion dur­ing the birds’ moult pe­riod.

Shel­duck be­gin to re­turn in Septem­ber, swelling the grow­ing ranks of those which pre­fer to stay in Bri­tain for the moult on the Wash, at Bridg­wa­ter Bay on the Sev­ern and else­where.

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