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Brahminy ducks: The Chakwa-Chakwi love birds of India

The male Brahminy duck indulges in a proposing ritual (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

A pair of Ruddy Shelduck ducks is flapping frantically in the Chambal river in Dholpur, Rajasthan. Banks of clean sand are what these ducks require. Probably the commonest ducks to be seen in winter, and although it may arrive in flocks and break up into pairs as soon as the winter partners have been chosen, yet it is very unusual to see more than twenty-five or thirty birds in one gathering. These are migratory annual visitors to the wetlands and lakes of many parts of India.

In my childhood, our elders used to chide us in Hindi, “Kya Surkhab ke Par Lage hain? (क्या सुर्खाब के पर लगे हैं )?” It meant, do you think you are unique?

These migratory birds to India are usually found in pairs (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar India)

I was told that Surkhab is a rare bird and it is found in the Himalayas. Decades later, during my early days of wildlife photography, one day my friend pointed towards a pair of beautiful ducks and said that these ducks are known as Ruddy Shelduck and in Hindi it is known as Surkhab! Later I tried to find out but there were too many confusions but one thing was clear that this duck is an enchanting beauty. 

Ruddy Shelduck is also known as Brahmini duck in India. But why is this duck called Brahminy? Is there any caste system in this species also? Is Brahminy linked with Brahmin? My Raju guide said after a long pause, it may be due to their saffron colour that resembled saffron robes of the Brahmins in ancient India, these birds are also revered as sacred by the Buddhists and known as 'Birds of Lama'.

In Myanmar, in Burmese monasteries, Brahminy duck is known as Hinthar. In Tibet and Mongolia, these ducks are considered sacred by Buddhists. In Hindi, the male duck is known as Chakwa and female Chakwi. They are called “lovebirds” because according to tradition, they’re always found in pairs. In Indian aesthetics, the bird symbolises conjugal fidelity.

Because of their saffron colour, they are mentioned in various religions in the Indian sub-continent (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar India)

Legend has it that Chakravaka birds are reborn lovers who had committed the 'sin' of disturbing sages at their meditation in their former life. The sages cursed the lovers to turn into ducks: worse, the pair had to separate after sundown and was, therefore, reduced to calling one another piteously through the night!

These are the same birds that ‘Satvahana’ artists carved on Buddhist friezes stupas of Ashoka. 

In ancient India, artists immortalised these birds by depicting them in the Buddhist Wheel of Life called Bhavachakra. In Mahayana Buddhist tradition, Buddha himself designed the first Bhavachakra to help ordinary people to understand his teachings. The story of how the Buddha passed on the drawing to King Rudrayana through King Bimbisara of Magadha appears in an anthology of Buddhist narratives called The Divyavadana.

Back to the modern time, the Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), is a member of the family Anatidae. It has a body length of 58-70 cm with a wingspan of 110-135 cm. It is a distinctive duck having rusty brown plumage with prominent metallic-green speculum and white wing coverts. The head is pale, turning almost white near the face. It has black tail, beak, legs and primaries. The wings have white feathers that are inconspicuous when the bird is resting, but become visible once it is in flight. In flight it looks heavy, more like a goose than a duck.

These birds can traverse long distances, crossing into India over the mighty Himalayas (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar India)

The sexes are similar but the males have a dark ring-like collar at the bottom of their neck that becomes prominent during breeding season. There is a strong pair bond between the male and female and it is thought they pair for life.  Mating takes place on the water after a brief courtship ritual involving neck stretching, head dipping and tail raising. 

According to a first ever study on these ducks by the researchers of England, Ruddy Shelducks scale the mighty Himalayas when they migrate to India from the north attaining heights of 6,800 metres. Scientists from the University of Exeter, the UK, had tagged satellite tracking chips on 15 ducks to discover that they fly through valleys in the mountain range–avoiding massive peaks like Mount Everest.

“This species has probably evolved a range of adaptations to be able to cope with flying so high, where oxygen levels are half those at sea level. We don’t yet know the nature of these adaptations, our research also shows that the ruddy shelduck has a faster climb rate than the bar-headed goose – the only waterfowl known to fly even higher,” writes lead researcher Nicole Parr of the University in his research paper. 

The Everest is 8,848 m high and these ducks are smart enough to avoid a towering mountain like the Everest.