Monday, 16 December 2013

Obscure bird of the week: Musk Duck

We’re birdwatchers, are we not. Now, I’m a man with a fine eye for beauty, and I ask myself, do we cut it? Are birders attractive? 

Birding's next top models 
Personally, I’m not the greatest fan of pie-bellies, buzzcuts and khaki shorts and I wouldn't buy a calendar featuring the UK500 club. Perhaps I’m in a minority of one here, but I don’t consider birders the adonites of human society, the pinnacle of masculine beauty. But why judge someone on such a shallow checklist? Birders, more than any group of society, ought to be able to find the inner beauty in a creature. Which is why I’m championing a bird with inner beauty, not one of those dumb blonde sibes or 90% silicon yanks.

You can tell from the name it’s going to be peculiar, and, quite possibly, smelly. Enigmatic to the last, it’s still leaving us debating it’s taxonomy, and while it’s not what the aesthete would call 'beautiful', it's certainly unique looking among Anatidae. Found in Australia, home of all the world’s best weird creatures. This is my championed bird, the Musk Duck(Biziura lobata)!

lets talk about those looks first. In ordinary plumage it kind of resembles a female Common Scoter, the same greyish tones, with a paler patch under the eye. it’s also got a remarkable tail though, which betrays it’s real origins; being most closely related to the stiff-tails the Ruddy and White-headed Duck. Like many seaducks, they float very low in the water. But the undipsuted highlight of clapping eyes on this bird comes if you see a male in breeding plumage. A little black flap of skin hangs down from the lower mandible, looking like a dandy’s black handkerchief. Think Frankenstein dressed as Oscar Wilde and you have some idea. Someone will probably correct me, but I believe this is the only duck to have decorative breeding garments hanging off of its lower mandible? that’s certainly pretty cool.

They’re also somewhat of an enigma to classify. Presumed related to the stifftails (Oxyurinae), but it’s peculiar morphology suggests this is a distant relation. it has no living relatives, but a prehistoric species in the genus Bizuria is known from New Zealand. it may be even be closely related to the equally weird (and disputably dead!) Pink-eared Ducks (malachorynchus), and it may be able to trace it’s divergence from other ducks back to the prehistoric continent of Gondwanaland! Almost qualifying as a living fossil in the process. 

How to make a Musk Duck; an idiot's guide to taxonomy 
The breeding process of the Musk Duck remains somewhat of a mystery, but one remarkable thing is known. They tingle with the ole’ olfactory; omitting a slightly pungent and very eminent musk during the breeding season! Don’t judge, they probably think you have horrible BO too. Plus, studies have shown that the stink of the duck and the size of his lobes (the skin flaps hanging off of the mandible), are directly related to how many girls he gets. I recommend men of the world stop wearing deodorant and clip a lead weight to the loose skin beneath their chin!

Available in all good retailers. 
So there you have it. Musk Ducks are the real birder's bird. What they lack in beauty, they can make up in balls, brass and bizzarity!

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

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