When a fox chooses to burrow its lair in brackish areas, near sandy shores or lagoons, it runs the risk of having to soon share its refuge with a feathered host, the common shelduck. This bird has the extravagance habit of reproducing using the deep hollows of the ground dug by foxes, badgers or rabbits. Unmistakable thanks to the white, black and dark green plumage and the rusty red belt on the chest, the common shelduck does not have great camouflage skills. But it knows how to defend with courage and determination from predators, effectively protecting the eggs and chicks.
Everything You Need To Know About The Common Shelduck:
With its behavior and the color of its plumage, the common shelduck, like the ruddy shelduck, occupies an intermediate position between real ducks and geese. This colorful bird suggests an exotic species but is actually one of the typical birds of the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts, where it nests in cavities in the ground and in rabbit holes. Towards the end of the summer, most of the western European breeding birds gather on the vast shore along the North Sea coast for the molting of the plumage.
The population is not large, and what is certain is that, in order to make it possible to establish significant populations, capable of resisting threats, it is absolutely necessary to favor suitable conditions for the nesting of common shelducks in areas most frequented by couples during the breeding season. Attempts in this sense have been made in some areas of Northern Italy, by excavating special cavities in the ground, thus preparing artificial nests to facilitate couples during the reproductive phase.
The need of the species to nest in ready-made burrows, in fact, restricts the opportunities for reproduction, although nests are increasingly reported in alternative environments, such as cultivated fields, a sign of this bird’s discreet predisposition to adaptation. On the other hand, the possible coexistence with the main tenant, the fox, which, despite its predatory nature, rarely attacks the common shelduck and spares its chicks, does not seem to have a negative impact.
- Scientific name: Tadorna tadorna.
- Weight: 850 – 1450 g.
- Length: 58 – 67 cm.
- Wingspan: 110 – 133 cm.
- Age: Up to 19 years.
- Diet: Insects, worms and little fish.
- Habitat: Lakes and waterways.
- Threats: Poaching, habitat alteration, egg and chick collection.
Between 55 and 65 centimeters long, it has a wingspan that can reach well over one meter. The conformation is very similar to that of the wild goose, from which, however, it differs markedly in colors. The feathers are mostly white, while the head and neck are dark green, with two black spots on the back and the characteristic red-brown band that acts as a collar. A thick stripe dyes almost the entire belly darkly, as well as the tip of the tail feathers and wing remiges.
The complete loss of tail and wing feathers in the molting phase prevents the common shelduck from taking flight until the livery has completely reformed. The legs are flesh-colored, while the beak, bright red in spring, tends to fade with the arrival of autumn. Males are distinguished by their larger size and by the protuberance on the beak that occurs during the reproduction period, while the females have a white spot between the beak and the eyes and have a plumage with more tenuous and less contrasting tones, with the band dark belly that is hardly noticeable. It is not particularly noisy and its call is not heard frequently.
It is widespread along the coasts of northern Europe (especially the North Sea and the Baltic) and in Asia (China, Japan and lakes of Siberia). In Italy there is a settled colony in Sardinia. It populates the sea coasts and brackish areas. In captivity it shows itself sociable with its own kind and with the other inhabitants of the pond, showing little distrust towards the breeder and adopting behaviors that resemble geese.
The diet of the common shelduck is truly varied and combines seeds, herbs, berries and algae, even food of animal origin such as fish, mollusks, snails, insects, worms, crustaceans, larvae and other small organisms. In captivity it adapts to normal balanced feeds and foods, supplementing the diet with food of the types mentioned.
To feed themselves, common shelducks proceed slowly in shallow water, where they immerse their beak, using it as a filter to retain food.
Once the nesting site has been chosen, the couple takes possession of its territory which it defends from intruders. Once the eggs have been laid, 7 to 14, the female hatches for 26-30 days; after birth, the chicks stay in the nest no longer than two months. For this, the chicks must quickly learn to feed themselves. As soon as they are born, the mother takes them to the water to make them skilled in swimming and looking for food as soon as possible.
Widely distributed from Europe to Asia, in Italy its presence is much more unstable. Between 5 and 24% of the global population of common shelducks nest within the European Union, and between 69-74% of the continental one. Translated into figures, this is a number of couples between 31,000 and 45,000.
In Europe, the species suffers from habitat loss: the gradual decrease of brackish wetlands as well as human interventions on marshes and lagoons, despite the safeguards applied to these territories and a growing environmental sensitivity, is a phenomenon that does not stop, side effect of non-sustainable development from an environmental point of view.
To worsen the situation in the past in Northern Europe, and in particular in Finland, the spread of the American mink, a carnivorous mammal that acts at night and represents a serious threat to the common shelduck nests. The elimination of this animal in the insular territory of Finland was a relief for the common shelduck populations who lived there, making it possible to increase the density of the species shortly thereafter.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.