Pink-headed duck

Extinct in 1950
  • Pink-headed duck
  • Pink-headed duck

Pink-headed duck – the most colorful duck from India

The Pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) is a large diving duck, and a bird that has a shade of rose pink that encompasses its head and neck, except for a small black line on the forehead and a blackish-brown stripe from the breast to the chin. The male pink-headed duck is a blackish-brown bird, and has secondary feathers and under-wings that are of a pinkish hue. The bill is pinkish-red, and the eyes are orange-red. Truly a duck that is unlike any other that exists today. The female is similar to the male, but more of a brownish color and the parts that are pink in the males' are whitish and slightly duller. They have no black line on the throat and forehead. Both sexes have a narrow bill, a long and very thin neck, rather long legs, a thick body, and a short tail.

Stuffed Pink-headed duck

Stuffed Pink-headed duck (Click to view larger image).

Pink-headed ducks were once found in parts of the Gangetic plains of India, Bangladesh, and in the riverine swamps of Myanmar, but have thought to have become extinct since the 1950s. As often, the reason for its disappearance was probably overhunting and habitat destruction. The last specimen was shot in 1935 in Bihar by the curator of the Darjeeling Museum, who did not even know what he had killed until his dog brought the bird to him.

Pink-headed duck on the book cover 〝INDIAN BIRDS″

The cover of the Book of Indian Birds with the Pink-headed duck
(Click to view larger image).

Although not a common bird in India, the Pink-headed duck, with its famous color, is still chosen for the cover picture of a guidebook about Indian birds, although the bird was already extinct.
Some Pink-headed ducks were kept at the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century in the aviaries of zoos and private collections. But they never bred in captivity and the last Pink-headed duck in captivity died in 1939, only four years after being extinct in the wild.
The London Zoo was the first zoo in Europe that kept a pair of Pink-headed ducks. The pair arrived in January 1874, but lived only a few years. In 1887 and probably some years later again, a British animal dealer imported several pairs of Pink-headed ducks to England. Then after a long break, the English Foxwarren Park obtained five ducks in 1925. Four years later, ten more ducks, mainly males, arrived in Britain. In 1929 the famous French ornithologist Jean Delacour got two pairs of this second British import. Delacour’s aviaries and the Foxwarren Park kept the last Pink-headed ducks.

Pink-headed duck drawn in the 17th century Pink-headed duck on an Indian stamp

Pink-headed duck drawn in the 17th century
(Click to view larger image).

Pink-headed duck on an Indian stamp
(Click to view larger image).

In May 1907, the Berlin Zoo also received from the animal dealer Hagenbeck one single mallard. But this Pink-headed duck died soon after in August 1908. However, two amusing stories are told about this bird. It is reported that the two Pink-headed ducks in the Calcutta Zoo disappeared about the same time that a distinguished German zoo proprietor was on a visit to Calcutta. The other story is about the director of the Berlin Zoo, who was really frustrated that a duck with such colorful name, which must evoke the most poetic idea of its beauty, has in reality only the head and neck with a nice soft rosy color, but is otherwise monotonously dark brown. Also, its posture is not quite elegant, and nobody would consider it to be a beautiful bird. However, it is certainly a great rarity.

Skull of Pink-headed duck Pink-headed duck drawn in the 18th century

Pink-headed duck drawn in the 18th century
(Click to view larger image).

Skull of Pink-headed duck
(Click to view larger image).

71 skins can be found today in 15 Natural History Museums, the oldest specimen being in the Paris Museum, dated 1825.
We are proud to keep the Pink-headed ducks from India in our Lost Zoo again after more than 75 years. The ducks can be seen on the large lake in the South Asian corner. Sometimes the visitor needs some patience to observe the Pink-headed duck, because along the lake long grass and reeds are planted to offer these rare birds the same environment as in nature.

Pink-headed duck enclosure in LOST ZOO

Pink-headed duck enclosure in LOST ZOO (Click to view larger image).

Executive Curator

Pink-headed duck

Body length: 35 cm, with a tail of 10,6-13,1 cm; wings 25-28 cm

Body weight: 793-1.360 g, depending on the season (before and after breeding season)

Nest: Round, 23 cm in diameter, 10-13 cm deep with walls of 7-10 cm.

Eggs: Nearly spherical, dull white with ivory tinge; in average 4.4x4.1 cm, but also almost round 4.3x4.2 cm

Habitat: Partial to swamps and small ponds surrounded by tall grass and bushes.

Extinction: Last wild specimen was shot in 1935, definitely extinct since the 1950ies. Overhunting and destruction of the habitat caused the extinction of the Pink-headed duck.