Colours of Wildlife: Crested Shelduck

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Crested Shelduck

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Crested Shelduck by Willem

I continue with the saga of recently extinct species. This is the Crested Shelduck, Tadorna cristata, sometimes called the Korean Crested Shelduck. The male stands on the left, the female on the right. This species occurred in far-east Asia, around Siberia, north-eastern China and North Korea.

Crested shelducks feature in art from China and Japan. From the early eighteenth century, this duck was even captured and exported to Japan, where it was kept in bird collections and called the Korean Mandarin Duck. This export continued until 1854. It was only recognized by western science in 1890, and initially considered a hybrid between a Falcated Duck, Anas falcata, and a Ruddy Shelduck, Tadorna ferruginea. Japanese ornithologist Nagamichi Kuroda described it as a proper species in 1917.

It was already very rare at the time; people later reckoned that a female shot in 1916 might have been the last one! But there were sightings of it reported in 1943, 1964, 1971 and 1985, although the 1964 sighting is the latest one that is considered reliable. Some people hold on to hope that it might still exist, but the prospects for that are not looking very good…

It would seem the crested shelduck was a relict species, one that was previously much more widely distributed but became rare with a much-reduced range. It lived in small flocks in rather mountainous country covered in coniferous forest, beside flowing rivers and streams. In the harsh winters, many birds moved from regions higher inland down to the coasts, and the Siberian populations migrated south to coastal Russia and China, Korea, and Japan. The duck was a rather generalist feeder, eating algae and aquatic plants, domestic crops, aquatic invertebrates, carrion, and even refuse. Some scientists think it fed largely at night. It might have nested in large cavities in trees, or amidst rocks, or even in burrows. The eggs, up to ten, were apparently incubated by the female alone.

Comparing this species to still-existing ones shows that it was quite unique. Although it belonged to the same genus as several surviving species, namely Tadorna, it didn't look like any of them. The name 'shelduck' means 'pied/variegated duck', although this doesn't describe all of the species. The ruddy shelduck, mentioned previously, is a rich reddish brown all over; the common shelduck, Tadorna tadorna, is white below with a rich reddish breast-band and a glossy green head, and other shelducks are also different in their respective ways. The crested shelduck further differs from the others in its mane-like crest, which consisted of long, shaggy feathers at the back of its head and neck, black with a greenish gloss. The female's white eye-ring recalls that of the female Paradise Shelduck, but otherwise her coloration is completely different. All in all, it was a beautiful and quite distinctive duck.

So why is it extinct? Well, its rarity might already have been due to human effects. People have always targeted ducks, as well as their eggs, for food. While there were never large human populations in the regions this duck inhabited, even a low level of hunting, together with changes wrought to its habitat, might have caused a slow but steady decline over a long period. The collection of birds for Japanese aviculture might also have played a role.

In the hopes that this species might still survive, conservationists have been distributing leaflets in China, Russia, North and South Korea, and Japan, asking people if they've seen the species and if so, to let them know – for which they might get a substantial reward– and urging them not to shoot the ducks. This has turned up numerous claimed sightings, but so far nothing could be confirmed. Today all that remains of them, as far as we can say for sure, are three stuffed specimens in museums.

My goal in featuring these extinct species is not to make people sad about things we can't change any more. It is likely quite impossible to bring a species back from extinction, even with genetic manipulation – Jurassic Park remains fiction. So once they're gone, they're gone forever. But we have many species that are still with us, that might also be gone soon if we don't do anything to save them. I want people to realise how 'easily' a species can be lost. Also, I want people to realize that we have already lost a lot of the world's biodiversity – again not to overwhelm them with feelings of futility, but to demonstrate that actually our planet can support way more biodiversity than exists at present – that indeed it should support more diversity. So indeed there is plenty of room and resources for all the species, threatened or not, that remain. Actually it is not that hard to save a species – all species that exist 'want' to keep on existing, have indeed been very successful for most of their own evolutionary history, and are capable of using just a slight bit of encouragement from us to restore their numbers. And given protection and a bit of time, the remaining species can evolve and re-diversify so that the planet could again enjoy greater diversity. And these living things with their uniqueness, beauty and diversity contribute to the quality of our own lives – they, along with us, are the wonder of our own planet, so far the only place in the Universe that we know to sustain life. And life is the most complex and fascinating phenomenon that we know of. We should celebrate, study and protect it in all of its manifestations. Only through that can we fully know and appreciate what we ourselves are, and reach our own full potential as living beings.

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