Friday, May 27, 2011

Putangitangi, the paradise shelduck

This being the duck shooting season, paradise ducks in the paddocks around Greytown are especially wary and start sounding the alarm even though I am still a great distance away, walking my dog as I am want to do. The male has the deeper voice, dueting with his mate as they fly off.

Putangitangi, the paradise shelduck, is endemic to New Zealand, that is it is found nowhere else in the world. It was discovered first by Captain Cook at Dusky Sound in 1773 during his second voyage. Cook called it the Painted Duck. They were not a common bird before settlement by Europeans but are now the one endemic bird which has prospered with the conversion of native forest to pasture. They have increased greatly in numbers through this century and are now only partially protected.

They are a large duck and are always seen in pairs except during the moulting season. The drake has a black head with a greenish gloss, the body being dark grey barred with black. The undertail and tertials are orange chestnut. The duck has a white head and the body is a bright orange chestnut.

They mainly graze on grass and weeds, or standing crops of peas or grain which can mean they often get on the wrong side of farmers.

Most paradise duck start breeding when 2 years old and pairs remain together from year to year, returning to the same nesting area. If one bird dies, its mate occupies the same territory and re-mates again. Having adapted to New Zealand when it was largely forested, they are able to nest in trees, in the epiphytes which festoon many New Zealand treees, but now they usually nest on the ground, well hidden beneath a log or clumps of grass. The ducklings have a striking pattern of brown and white down but when they fledge at around eight weeks they resemble adult males, except the females have whiter patches around the eyes and the base of the bill.

Ducks provided Maori with quite a considerable portion of their food supply in some favoured districts, including the Wairarapa. When the ducks were moulting they became very fat and it was at this time that the rahui, which protected the birds during their breeding season, was lifted. The birds having become flightless, could be collected, driven and herded from open lake waters into the water plants lining the shores and there caught in very large numbers. Women and children often took part in the drive, everyone entering the canoes and to make a pleasure jaunt of it. Dogs were also used to capture the birds.

Sir W. Buller tells us that in 1867, 7000 duck were taken in three days at lake Rotomahana. Similar numbers were also being taken at other lakes at the same time. The ducks taken were primarily Parera, the grey duck, but paradise duck were also among the numbers. This was long before Mallard ducks were introduced. When such large numbers of birds were taken many of them were cooked and preserved in their fat in gourds or bark vessels.

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