Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Chestnut-breasted Shelducks (Mountain Ducks)

This morning I was planning to go bird watching at Bundanoon, joining with the good folk over there, for a Winterfest event. After rising at 6:30 am to check for a early emails, before I was to go out for the day, I sat at the computer for about 15 minutes, and realised my toes were aching with cold. 

I retreated to my bed (with an electric blanket turned on).
Apologies to the good folks of Bundanoon, but some things seem unreasonably painful.

Later in the day, (much later) I went out heading towards Bundanoon (no doubt out of a sense of guilt).

I got as far as the wonderful farm dam close to the Nowra Road turn-off, (from the Illawarra Highway). This wonderful dam is part of Sowter's Dairy, Nowra Road, Moss Vale. It never fails to reveal a small community of ducks whenever I drive towards Moss Vale.

As I drove past, I checked it out (as I always do) and I thought I had spotted a pair of "Mountain Ducks" (Australian Shelducks, or Chestnut-breasted Shelducks).
These birds are decidedly uncommon in the Southern Highlands of NSW, so I immediately turned back, and pulled up opposite the dam. The birds responded by moving to the far side of the dam (naturally). I managed to get a few half-way decent photographs. At least they show the differences between the male and the female birds.

Female Australian Shelduck, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck
note the white eye mark and white spot on beak
chestnut breast is darker than the male bird.
Female Australian Shelduck, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck

Male "Sheldrake"
Note his cinnamon coloured breast
and the clear ring mark on the neck.
Australian Shelduck, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck
When I was learning about birds, these birds were called
"Mountain Ducks"

Ignore the confusing names
This is a handsome bird
and he knows it!
And so does his lady friend.
Here are some other links to bird reference sites for ths species.

And a link to a fabuous photo of a male bird:

Finally a note about the terminology.
The name which was featured in the bird books when I was a kid was Mountain Duck.
Then they became known as Chestnut-breasted Shelduck.
The irony of this is that the name perfectly describes the female of the species, but not the male.
He would be better described as "cinnamon-breasted Sheldrake". That is the one option which has never been used.

Then with the internationalisation of names, they became the Australian Shelduck.
But linguistic tradition has it that the male birds ought be Sheldrakes.
  • They were originally known as "sheldrakes", this remained the most common name until the late 19th century. The word is still sometimes used to refer to a male shelduck. (Wikipedia)
But it does not "fit" with scientific terminolgy to apply a name to a species, which specifically refers to only the male birds.

As an example of how we can get caught up in ridiculous linguistic conundrums, consider the genus Pavo: "The male is called a peacock, the female a peahen, and the offspring peachicks"
Modern terminology has settled on Peafowls, but hardly any birdwatcher, or keeper of tame birds of this genus would not call them "peacocks" in a relaxed moment, at the end of a day.


Pete Shanley said...

Great post! I find those naming conundrums fascinating! Peter

Pete Shanley said...

Great post! I find those naming conundrums fascinating! Peter

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Pete.
Glad you found it to be of interest.
I have invited you to be part of my list of Aussie Nature Bloggers>
No cost, no "membership" or anything like that.
It is just a list of bloggers whose work I like to follow.
Hope that is OK with you.

Flabmeister said...


The most absurd naming "convention" of which I am aware was where I grew up in Essex. (Something absurd from Essex - how unusual - not!) There the term Mallard was only used for the males (aka drakes) while the females were simply "Wild Ducks".

As I commented elsewhere one of farming friends on the Molonglo today reported 56 Shelduck in his lucerne paddock. They are generally uncommon here too, but that paddock is usually popular with them.


Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Martin
I had not realised that Mallard was also an exclusively masculine name.
Wikipedia acknowledges that fact, then ignores it in their own text - referring to ducks and drakes.
Oxymorons rule.