Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Ruddy Duck Question


If you began birding only recently, here's a species you possibly don't yet have on your list...

Ruddy Ducks, otherwise known as 'dead birds floating'

I took the photo at Staines Res in December 2010, and haven't seen a Ruddy Duck since. In my active West London birding days of the 1980s and early '90s they were a pretty common sight, especially in winter when they gathered in double-figure flocks at several localities. According to what I've read (and I'll take it at face value) the whole UK population originated from seven individuals imported in 1948. They and/or their offspring began jumping the fence shortly afterwards, and when I saw my first (during a YOC trip to Tring Reservoirs in the early 1970s) they had been at large for maybe 25 years. By the year 2000 the population was around 6,000 birds...

If, at this stage, you are thinking "Oh, good for them! What a fine success story!" well, think again.

Perhaps you have in mind the ubiquitous Canada Goose, similarly 'at large', and highly successful. And while you personally (and sensibly) believe that the Canada Goose is evil incarnate, and clearly set to replace homo sapiens as the dominant species on the planet, you cannot help but marvel at its fecundity and its ability to persuade man to tolerate swarming herds of the things. Ruddy Ducks, on the other hand, are small and cute, and make you smile involuntarily at their ludicrously blue bills and ridiculous tails. If anything deserves a shot at success, the Ruddy Duck does. So, "Yes," you are thinking, "Go, Ruddy Ducks!"

But, O foolish naïf, you have reckoned without White-headed Duck, and the fact that Ruddy Duck has a very acquisitive eye on the position of its Eurasian congener. Arriving on the continent, it explained - like the Borg - that resistance is futile, and proceeded to begin assimilation by diluting the genetic purity of its cousin through hybridisation. Spain had just spent vast sums of money on improving the lot of its dwindling stock of White-headed Ducks by controlling shooting and protecting habitat, and there was no way the Ruddy Duck was going to be allowed to poop that particular party. Cutting a long story short, the upshot of all this was a decision to exterminate the entire UK Ruddy Duck population, beginning around the turn of the century. Since then, several million pounds of UK and EU money have gone into this eradication programme, and thousands have been shot.

Which means that nowadays it's a right stinker to get on your year list.

Opinions are divided on what to do about the last few remaining. An all-out effort to track down and shoot each and every one? Some see that as the righteous path, and would like any sightings of this now-scarce bird reported to the 'authorities'. Others, though, would rather protect them through suppression. Occasionally the debate surfaces online. Like this recent tweet...




I think it would be nice if the last few remaining Ruddy Ducks were left alone. My own reasons for that view are admittedly sentimental, but I can offer some argumentation for the scientifically inclined...

If you are convinced that evolution is the mechanism which drives the various changes in all forms of life on this planet, surely you've got to admire a bird that has evolved to look so cute that it can induce another species to pick it up and carry it halfway across the globe to facilitate the spreading of its genes. And if White-headed Duck is so genetically feeble that just a whiff of robust Yank DNA causes it to crumple so pathetically, well, it's doomed anyway isn't it? And who are we to get in the way of all that? So yes, of course Ruddy Duck fully deserves its crack at being the fittest for survival.

On a slightly more serious note, it is quite thought-provoking that we have the power to decide what species or habitats deserve our help, or not. We'll spend huge sums and loads of time and energy on some creature that is actually not threatened at all, while others (including many that we're probably quite oblivious to) are blithely allowed to disappear without trace. And still others are quietly taking over the planet without hindrance from mankind. It's all very arbitrary...


Resistance is futile...

13 comments:

  1. What do you think will happen after Brexit? Will the EU still hand out money to continue to eradicate the cute little Ruddy or will they again be a UK year list addition?

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    1. That's a good question Mike. Who knows? Personally I could easily see political considerations trumping any conservation issue when it comes to money. But then I'm a bit cynical.

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  2. A thought provoking post - Gavin..
    Whilst absolutely understanding the science of the Ruddy Duck culling programme. I also witnessed the gun boats at Staines Reservoir killing many Ruddy Ducks at very close range. An awful sight for anyone who has any interest in birds. I've thought long and hard about the rights and wrongs of this cull and revisited it on several ocassions. My conclusion is always this is government and academics making a dreadful decision.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Ken. It leaves a bad taste, doesn't it?

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  3. I'm against the shooting of any birds apart from Robins at Christmas time.

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    1. I know you don't mean it. Robins at Christmas time. Just so much cuteness...

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  4. Gav,

    A really thought provoking post. I saw my first Ruddy Ducks on Marsworth Res, Tring (1980-ish) - utterly mesmerised by that crazy blue beak. I've seen White-headed Duck in Kent, Stodmarsh NNR late 1990's - so am at a loss to know why Ruddy Duck is tickable whilst White-headed Duck is not? However, the major issue is about alien species and their adverse effect on the indigenous species. Obviously there has been a great deal of thought gone into this decision, just like that Common Buzzard v's commercial Pheasant shooting! Alien v's indigenous - good to have consistence in the decision making departments of our nation's scientific advisory elite.
    Have a great Christmas & New Year - take care - Dyl

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    1. Ha ha! Thanks Dyl, and yes, the irony isn't lost on me.

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  5. Gav, I understand that reports of Ruddy Duck are now suppressed on the London Birders website. That might not necessarily be official.

    I'll send you an article from a YOC mag showing how the birds status has done a full circle.

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    1. Thanks for that Ric. YOC article safely received. 1975! Great that you've still got all that stuff. All mine are long gone...

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  6. Gav, I still have all my copies from 1971-76.

    I used to have a lot of old fishing mags, but I think you and Rob gave those a good home. I doubt if I would have done much else with them apart from leave them gathering dust.

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    1. Most of those mags went back to the '70s too. When fibreglass was high-tech...

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