Which One's Pink?

The Search for the Pink-headed Duck in Burma.

"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."

Preparation for 2012 search in Myanmar (investigating further reports of possible surviving Pink-headed Duck), in 95 Ins area, northern Kachin State.

fig'1. In Burmese, the message promises a reward for evidence of an extant Pink-headed Duck, plus a heartfelt plea not to shoot or harm any living specimen.  
(copyright exists for image. See endnotes for credits).


With four months to go before leaving for Burma again, my thoughts turned to the historical context of the Pink-headed Duck in both India and Burma. 

What is indisputable is that both habitat destruction and overhunting contributed to the Pink-headed Duck's demise in India. Failure to observe a closed season, plus the beauty and rarity of the bird itself marked the bird for extinction almost before it had been properly observed and classified, and crucially before any viable protection programme could be introduced. Today, the Pink-headed Duck would almost certainly have survived, given the changed way of thinking towards species conservation in modern times, now treated very seriously indeed. But (the Karagola area notwithstranding) it seems certain that India has seen its last Pink-headed Duck. But this 'changed way of thinking' seemed a good way to investigate the history of the bird - and to consider how to look for it on the next trip to Kachin State.

Hunting without guns: thoughts and preparation.

Researching and exploring Myanmar in order to ascertain the possible survival of the Pink-headed Duck in Burma has been a decade-long labour of love that hasn’t always gone according to plan – as the best quests always seem to be. But that in itself wouldn’t be unusual; as cultivation and general human impact on ecosystems takes hold, the likeliest places containing tiny populations of rare species would be by definition most likely harder to locate and explore.

This has not always been the case: the Indian Forest Spotted Owlet, thought long-extinct, turned up alive and well in a comparatively urbanised part of India, and the Bermuda Petrel, or Cahow, vanished since the seventeenth century, made a surprisingly unannounced reappearance a few years ago. But as I said earlier it’s probably both sad and safe to assume that the Pink-headed Duck has now been long-lost from India; once inhabiting the Eastern States of this massive subcontinent such as Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, West Bengal, with a few stragglers reported as far north as the deep forests of Bhutan, it’s generally accepted that the bird has not been reliably seen in the wild in India since around 1936 (1947 at the absolute latest).

Burma, however, is a different story, and the record of the Pink-headed Duck in Burma is controversial but nonetheless worth exploring fully. I am in the throngs of preparing for the next trip out there, to a swampy area around 250 kms north of Mandalay, where I have yielded some surprisingly accurate results in the past, which have been:

February 2009:  The 98 Inn area north of the Ayeyarwady and up the Tapin tributary, where Pink-headed Duck were historically recorded. A farmer and a hunter reported seeing a Pink-headed Duck (apparently a single male), with positive ID of a specimen. They added that the bird came to the water “only in the evening”, and was seen “around forty days ago.”

September/October 2010: Here at the same area the same farmer again identified the bird, this time from a separate picture (colour plate) and added that a male and a female had regularly occupied a mid-sized shallow, warm lagoon, which lay near the original lake (Lake 1 of 3). He added that they had come in December “in the cold season” and were seen “only by evening”, and never associated with any other species of duck or other wildfowl.

So now the trip is planned for Dec 27th 2011, but it is very important, I think, to recognise some further points with all this in mind, and this time do some preparatory work:

The first point to bear in mind is the fact that, although over 90% of Pink-headed Duck sightings came out of India, this may not be an indication of population size. For example, around the last part of the nineteenth century, vast areas of Indian wetland were being cleared for the construction of railways, cultivation of agriculture and construction of housing, and so the Pink-headed Duck would have been constantly flushed from its remote hiding places. By contrast, Burma was regarded as a small satellite by the British – and an unpleasant one at that, so not nearly so much attention was paid to the region. The habitat, of course, remained serene and undamaged and, for all that is known of it (and we really don’t know much about the Pink-headed Duck), populations may even have been of a higher yield, albeit un-flushed and unreported (of course, most people agree that they could never match the Indian populations completely – but it is a school of thought).

The second important point to bear in mind is that people who shot the Pink-headed Duck were sportsmen and hunters, rather than birdwatchers and conservationists; they had specialist advantages to maximise their ‘take’: duck decoys and callers and other lures, and we know they had success with this from the numbers of Pink-headed Duck taken. And so, therefore, we will do the same in this area.

fig’ 2. From The Wildfowl of Asia, this colour plate of a male Pink-headed Duck was the picture that Kyaw Laing, a local farmer, recognised. Note the clear definition of throat-stripe, pink bill and eye and pale pink scapulum.

As 'hunters', we will be using the following: callers, decoys, a tent at both locations (netted over to act as hides and set up at both Lake 1, plus the lagoon), and walkie-talkies. In addition to this we will be using decoys on the lake. This is to persuade any flying ducks it is safe to land. I decided on a Pintail, because of the obvious expanse of exposed neck as opposed to the classic “hunched” pose of Mallard, plus the easy showing of wing-colouration. Of course the size is smaller, but there is nothing we can do about that. Also we must not stop at this model: a single drake may (although of course we don’t know this) deter other drakes; possibly an additional duck will have to make up a pair to “swim” with our drake.

fig’ 3. The Northern Pintail seemed the obvious choice, avoiding the hunched posture of most Mallard decoys. Here the neck is more obvious, although the tail is still in place.


 fig’ 4. Applying a 'feathering' technique to bring a realistic edge to the throat stripe.



 fig’ 5. Now looking more like a male Pink-headed Duck, the decoy is almost finished. It now sports a much shorter tail but the bill still needs pinking and varnishing. Lowlights of black-brown have yet to be applied to the body, and the eye is lacking pink in finer detail. Finally, more intricate 'alive' detailing awaits, including varnish droplets on the back (to make it appear as if the duck has been diving).  


fig’ 6. 101 years since the last (dead) Pink-headed Duck  specimen was liberated from a stall at Mandalay bazaar in 1910,  'my' Pink-headed Duck is set to swim again in Burma.


Last notes.

I've now decided to go ahead and make up a second decoy. This is because the possible sighting was, after all, at two locations within a few metres of each another, so we can't risk trying to lure a Pink-headed Duck to one location whereas it might be on the other. 

I've also written to both Ahyin and Sein Win, arranging for the former (with his licence) to meet me at the Friendship Hotel in Bhamo on Sunday 8th January 2012, where he will find his room booked. I will be arriving in Bhamo on Friday 6th January and meeting up with Sein Win on Saturday 7th. On Sunday during the day we (me, Sein Win and Po Se will be going to the lake area to prep': (i) visiting Kyaw Laing for any new information (ii) floating the two decoys on both Lake 1 and the lagoon. (iii) putting up the hides at the best vantage points using camouflage netting and Po Se's experience (iv) testing the walkie-talkies to communicate between Lake 1 (Sein Win and Po Se) and the lagoon (me and Ahyin).

On arrival back at Bhamo the three of us will meet up with Ahyin and all go out for dinner.

Regarding the five days watching the lakes, there will be no more camping out on Po Se's boat; we can't risk being told not to go to the area. So we will have to watch the lakes day-to-day, leaving the hotel early to get there before sunrise,and returning late after sunset.

So this article is really just to bring us up to speed with how everything is progressing this year. If the farmer is correct in what he saw then we now have the season and location spot-on; this is by far the best chance we have for rediscovering this lost species.  To those who may feel it isn’t fair on the Pink-headed Duck to temporarily introduce non-existent companions to what would be an already tiny population, I hope they will understand and forgive; it’s of paramount importance to log any sightings of these wonderful birds if they do still exist here, given that their status is certainly critically endangered - at best. This may indeed be the only chance to film and record the birds, before they too give up the ghost and join their Indian neighbours into extinction.


Richard Thorns 2011.


Tee shirt image shows detail from Birdlife International / BANCA's pamphleteering in Myanmar, regarding requests for information about Pink-headed Duck.

©BirdLife International / BANCA.