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 Shelduck - Fact File
Tadorna tadorna
Widespread around Britain and Ireland on suitable coasts.
Mainly coastal, favouring muddy and sandy estuaries, but increasingly, small numbers breed inland.

At a distance can look black and white, but head and neck is a glossy green-black and has prominent chestnut breast band. Unlike most ducks, sexes are similar, although female rather duller and lacks knob at base of bill.

61 cm (24")


One of the most attractive of our waterfowl, the goose-like shelduck is renowned for its spectacular moult gatherings along the northern coast of Germany.

These concentrations are often enormous, the most famous one is the German Waddenzee reaching over 100,000 birds and including most of the north-west European population: Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Scandinavia, north Germany, north Poland and the Baltic States.

A smaller concentration of up to 4000 assembles in Bridgwater Bay (probably consisting mostly of Irish breeders) whilst other moult-sites include the Firth of Forth and the Wash.

The Waddenzee consists of many square miles of gently shelving sand and mudbanks largely covered at high water. All shelduck except those bred during the year need to renew wing and tail feathers simultaneously. For about four weeks they are unable to fly at all.

The first flights of our shelduck — probably mostly immatures not yet breeding and moulting flight features for the first time — cross the North Sea by July. Adults follow throughout the month with new arrivals during August and even September. Late arrivals are perhaps birds which have delayed migrating until the young they have cared for are independent. Shelduck broods readily unite to form packs with only a very few adults in attendance.

Fortunate observers have seen shelduck on actual migration. At Scolt Head Island following unsettled weather a total approaching 4000 has been recorded heading north-east during a four-day movement. On another occasion 2500 shelduck were watched at dusk moving north off Wolferton in groups of between 100 and 150. At times Breydon Water provides a mid-summer staging post for a thousand or more shelduck.

Shelduck breed in some numbers, along the Norfolk shore of The Wash and along the north coast. Inland breeding has become widespread with pairs nesting regularly at ten or more Broadland localities (including one within four miles of Norwich). Favoured nesting sites include dense bramble and gorse patches, hollow trees and stacks of baled straw. Elsewhere in the country, the Fens and Brecks have also been penetrated.

Almost immediately the young have hatched and dried, they are led from the nest by both parents and sometimes by other 'spare' adults to the nursery water. The distance can be a mile or more. Once installed — often the dyke behind a sea wall — the parents begin to feel the call of moult migration. Within a few days they actually begin driving off their tiny ducklings.

Fortunately, these orphans are not abandoned: several broods join together quickly forming a nursery school even if they are of varying areas, under the supervision of one or more adults. In fact size and composition of the creches is for ever changing. The escorts are thought to be failed breeders or non-breeders. Normal size for a creche is between 20 and 40, but gatherings of a hundred ducklings are on record.

More remarkable, a creche of almost 200 shelducklings has been recorded in the vicinity of The Wash following a very successful breeding season. Some were less than a week old, others almost free-flying and all were being attended by a dozen adults.

When such a gathering is approached, the attendants take wing uttering warning quacks to the youngsters who dive with skill to avoid danger. At the first warning quack all the young shelduck disappear, leaving a jet of water as if each had had a stone aimed at it. Although the young dive freely, the adults only do so when wounded or frightened.

Moulting completed, autumn migration begins in a rather leisurely fashion. Shelduck returning to breeding areas in this country have often arrived by late October. But in other years return is delayed by up to two months.

Other populations numbering many thousands remain all-winter on the moulting grounds. Long-lived, one individual ringed as a nestling at Cantley was recovered 16 years later at the traditional German moulting area

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.