India is home to 70% of the world’s tiger population. The tiger is India’s national animal, and hence, widespread attention is given to this majestic beast. On this World Wetlands Day, however, let’s shift our focus a bit and talk about a lesser known bird, which is also the state bird of Assam.
The population of the white-winged duck, locally known as ‘deo-hans’ meaning spirit duck, is dwindling at a dangerously fast pace. Research shows there are less than 1,000 white-winged ducks left the world over, out of which more than half of the population is attributed to the northeast region of India.
It is believed that the white-winged duck’s call revives the spirit of the jungles of the northeast. Now these very jungles are, however, in danger of missing the beauty of their calls if we don’t take action on war footing to locate and preserve this bird’s habitat.
As a bird that is rarely spotted, one must know a little bit more about this bird before one can venture forth and search for it. As the name mentions, they have a white colour on the underside of their wings. They are generally active during early mornings and evenings. They are wood ducks, so they make their nests on wood.
The white-winged duck is big in size and generally prefers locations with still or slow-flowing water bodies. Since they are omnivores, they can sometimes be seen waddling their way to the fields or ponds near a forest area, in search of food.
Ongoing efforts to captive breed this bird have shown some positive signs. But breeding in captivity and reintroduction should be the last resort in conservation efforts for an endangered animal. If we are careful right now, we will be able revive the population in the wild. That’s where the real spirit of conservation lies.
Also, saving this bird along with its habitat will ensure water security for that region; every bit of effort counts. And it will be a win-win situation for the local population out there. Wetlands in any form help provide a clean source of water for the present and as well as future generations.
One of the major reasons for the declining population of this duck is habitat degradation. So, it will be important to zero in on habitats where these birds thrive. Another reason is the lack of awareness about this endangered species.
Fortunately, there are organizations like The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) that has taken the initiative to survey their habitats outside the regular and known haunts of this elusive bird and try to get the real numbers of these enigmatic species on record.
According to Vivek Menon, Founder and CEO of WTI: “The white-winged duck is an endangered duck that is also a cultural and natural icon of Assam. We can just lose it like the pink-headed duck. WTI is committed to saving this species before it is too late.”
WTI’s efforts are focused on bringing together birders and wildlife enthusiasts who are gearing up to locate these mysterious birds in various locations across the northeast, right from February to November 2021.
Photographers too can contribute to this initiative if they can manage to find these birds in areas other than Nemeri-Pakke or Dahing-Patkai, and take photos without disturbing them. To know more, check out https://www.wti.org.in/in-search-of-the-white-winged-duck/.
Artists, singers, and writers too can help by spreading the word through the medium of their art, especially in the local languages of the region. This is a high-spirited quest to find the spirit duck and aim to locate and protect these winged beauties can’t be achieved without the support of the local population.
So, our efforts must be put into going local and being vocal about this bird. It is necessary to understand the bird and its behaviour. I hope these efforts to revive the ghostly calls of the spirit duck will get a much-needed morale boost from local artists through storytelling too. I would like to leave you with a thought-provoking quote by conservationist Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Nishand Venugopal is a wildlife enthusiast, writer and nature photographer from India with a keen interest in conservation awareness initiatives.