By Risidra Mendis
A rare bird believed to be extinct and not spotted for the last 80 years was suddenly seen in Yala by a nature lover recently.
The Comb Duck species believed to be a native of Sri Lanka was presumed to be wiped out as there were no recordings of its presence in the country.
However, nature lover Indika Nettigama came across this bird in Block 1 at Rukvilla in the Yala National Park on 21 June while on a safari tour.
Lalith Ramanayake and Bird Club President Nanda Senanayake had also seen the Comb Duck on the same day while at the Yala Park.
Speaking to Ceylon Today Nettigama said he accompanied a group of clients on a safari to see leopards in Yala.
“When coming back from the safari I suddenly noticed this bird and identified it as the Comb Duck,” Nettigama said.
The nature lover immediately took a photograph and informed bird expert Uditha Hettige of the discovery.
“I sent a picture of the bird to Hettige who confirmed that it was actually the Comb Duck,” Nettigama explained.
Meanwhile, Ramanayake has reported that when he proceeded towards the Rukwila Tank to spot the leopard cubs, a large goose-like bird flew from the near side to the further end of the pond.
Largest of the three resident ducks
His colleague Senanayake had got very excited and informed him that the bird looked like the very rare ‘Comb Duck’ and on closer inspection with the use of the binoculars confirmed to be so.
Commenting on the rediscovery of the Comb Duck Environment lawyer Jagath Gunewardene said this is one of the largest of the three resident ducks found in Sri Lanka.
“In the late 1880s the History of Birds of Ceylon had made reference to this bird. However, the Comb Duck, a whistler, was never seen. In G.M. Henry’s Birds of Sri Lanka in 1971 it was noted as possibly extinct as it was not spotted for many decades. W.W.A. Philips had recorded in 1978 unconfirmed reports of the bird, but it was never seen,” Gunewardene said.
He went on to say that Peter Jayawardene from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) had reported a female bird with chicks in 1960/61. However these reports were treated as unconfirmed as no photos were taken of the bird and it wasn’t recorded thereafter.
John Harrison in his book gives the name as Comb Duck (Nukhta)(sarkidiornis melanotos), and says that it was earlier resident in Sri Lanka, and is now extinct.
“The British colonialists were responsible for the extinction of this bird from the country. The Comb Duck was hunted as a sport and for food by these British colonialists,” Gunewardene said.
The photos taken by Nettigama and Ramanayake have now confirmed the bird’s existence at Yala.
The rare sighting by Nettigama of Leopard Safaris (Pvt.) Ltd shows that this unique-looking duck is still living and breeding on the island.
The Comb Duck is a large pan-tropical duck characterized by its goose-like appearance and an unusual knob on the male’s bill. This knob stays small for most of the year but enlarges during breeding season.
They are usually found in wetland areas and tend to feed on vegetation, grass seeds and small snails, but will occasionally eat small fish or invertebrates.
Comb Ducks are a cavity nester and need a nest box to nest. Boxes can be raised or placed on the ground. However there are exceptions where they will sometimes build a ground nest among thick vegetation.
The eggs are white or greenish-white
The female incubates six to eight eggs for about 30 days. The eggs are white or greenish-white in colour. But unlike other species, the female does not line her nest with down.
Comb Ducks are generally peaceful and do well in a mixed aviary, but the males should be watched as they can become somewhat aggressive during the breeding season.
This bird is a fairly large perching duck with a body weight of 1.3 to 2.6 kg in males and 0.9 to 2.4 kg in females.
Comb ducks are known to perch on trees and cling with their strong claws to vertical tree trunks. They nest in tree cavities about six to nine metres above the ground or within holes in the walls of buildings.
This species, as with other tree ducks, practise dump nesting where several females lay their eggs in one nest. Such nests may even hold more than 50 eggs.
Comb Ducks are usually silent except at times when they get annoyed. The males are known to hiss, wheeze, croak and whistle while the females quack, grunt and whine.
The nest sites are variable but most frequently made on the ground, in grass or reed beds. courtesy: Ceylon Today