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Common Name : Comb Duck     -       Scientific Name : Sarkidiornis melanotos       -       Other Name : Nukhta, Knob-billed Duck (E), Kabalithiya (S)
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016
Viyadikulam Tank
05/23/2016

This species was breeding resident in the large water bodies surrounded by thick jungle in the low-country dry zone until the end of the 18th century. Unfortunately from the beginning of the 19th century it had become extremely rare and is believed to have become extinct in the country. Currently it is regarded as a very rare migrant.

It is found in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar and south Asia from Pakistan to Laos and China. This species also occurs in continental South America south to Paraguay, Brazil and extreme northeast of Argentina. It is the only known species of the genus Sarkidiornis.  Two subspecies have been recognized. Sarkidiornis melanotos melanotos is found in South Asia and Sarkidiornis melanotos sylvicola is found in South America.

The conservation status of the species under reference is regarded as “Least Concerned” (IUCN Red List).
This species is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance as amended by Act No. 22 of 2009.

Even though no breeding records of this species have been observed for more than a century a study of the available literature reveals that this species was not uncommon even during the latter part of the 18th century. I have perused the more important sources and reproduced below information of its occurrence in the country from the earliest times. 

Sir J. Emerson Tennent, K.C.S. LL.D. & c in Sketches of the NATURAL HISTORY OF CEYLON  - 1861 – in chapter VII page 268 has included the Comb Duck as a species of bird fond in the country.

Captain W. Vincent Legge, R.A. in A History of the Birds of Ceylon - 1880 states as follows – The “Comb Duck” is more common in Ceylon than is generally supposed by those who have not visited the forest wilds of the island. Though nowhere numerous, it is found here and there in jungle-begirt tanks in the north and east, and no doubt wanders about a good deal, as it is said to do in India, repairing to the most secluded spots to breed, and afterwards affecting some of the larger and wilder sheets of water throughout the forests and near the sea shore. Layard speaks of it as no uncommon on the Tanks of the Vanni; and Mr. Parker writes me that it is tolerably common, but not plentiful, in the North-western Province and in the Anuradapura District, frequenting the Medawachchiya and other tanks. It is found at Mullaittive and at Toopoor, south of Trincomalie. In the Batticaloa district it affects the Ambare, Irukkaman, and other tanks, and Mr. Fisher, C.C.S., met with it near Yala, and found it breeding there. It likewise affects Tissa-Maha-Rama tank, and is found, I believe, at Urubokka and other tanks near Tangalla. This bird was first described from Ceylon by Forester, who erroneously states that it is common in the hills.

James A. Murray in The Avifauna of the Island of Ceylon – 1890 states as follows -In Ceylon it is said to breed in the Mannar district from January to March, usually on trees in the proximity of large sheets of water.

W.E Wait in Ceylon Journal of Science  - Manual of the Birds of Ceylon – 1931 states as follows – Found here and there on large tanks in the north and east of the island. This large Duck is nowhere common, but may be met with in small flocks on large, weedy tanks in the heart of the jungle.

Hugh Whistler in The Avifaunal Survey of Ceylon published in the Vol. 23 Part 3 & 4 of Spolia Zeylanica - August 25, 1944 states as follows – Status: - Uncertain. Low country dry zone. A resident nest one time, found here and there on large tanks in the north and east of the low country but has not been seen for many years and is probably now extinct in Ceylon. Breeds in February and March.

W.W.A.Phillips, F.L.S., M.B.O.U. in A (1952) revised checklist of the BIRDS OF CEYLON published by the National Museums of Ceylon – April 1953 states as follows – Probably extinct in Ceylon; at one time resident Low country Dry Zone. This Duck does not appear to have been observed in Ceylon during the present century; it is probably now extinct.

G.M Henry in his Guide to the Birds of Ceylon – 1955 states as follows - …… in Legge’s time it was not uncommon in the wilder districts of Ceylon, but it does not appear to have been seen for many years and it is to be feared that it is now extinct in the Island. It may, however, visit us occasionally from India, and it is greatly to be hoped that, should it do so, sportsmen and poachers will restrain their natural hankering to shoot so splendid a duck, so that it may have a chance of rehabilitating it self as a resident species.

W.W.A.Phillips, F.L.S., M.B.O.U. in A 1975 Annotated checklist of the BIRDS OF CEYLON (Sri Lanka) published by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Ceylon – 1975 states as follows – Status uncertain. Probably a very scarce breeding resident in the low country.
Formerly resident in small numbers on some of the jungle-girt Dry Zone ‘Tanks’ in many districts of the Dry Zone) Legge, 1880, P.1064). Until recently, however, it had not been observed during the present century and was believed to be extinct in Ceylon but, on 4th December 1960, two large ducks, believed to be of this species, was observed by C.E.Norris, at Lahugalla, near Monaragala, and later, others were seen by Mr. P. Jayawardena, Game Ranger, in the same area, on several occasions during 1961 (Ceyl. Bird. Cl. Notes). It seems likely, therefore, that a few still survive, as residents, in this area.

G.M Henry in his Guide to the Birds of Ceylon – Third edition – 1998 states as follows – In 1960 and 1961 the Comb Duck was reportedly seen at Lahugala and there are a few subsequent tentative sightings, but there is no definite recent evidence of its presence in Sri Lanka. It must be regarded as extinct, though occasional stragglers from India cannot be excluded.

However during the last four decades late Farther Bavinc of the Ceylon Bird Club reported this species on a few occasions from Giant’s tank in Murunkan. During the last decade the number of sightings appear to have increased and it was reported from Yala, Kumana and Bundala National Parks as well as locations such as Dembarawewa in Tissamaharama, Matara and Nawadankulama. These sightings were mainly during the migrant with a few during the non-migrant season as well.  

On the 21st of August 2012 I observed and photographed a flock of 12 birds of this species at Dembarawewa in Tissamaharama. On the 9th of February 2013 one bird was observed at Nawadankulama.

On the 23rd of May 2016 I was on my way from Mollikulama to the DWC office at Thekkama. To reach this isolated location of Wilpattu one has to take a road, which goes along the bund of the picturesque Viyadikulam Tank. Across this tank is Wilpattu national park.  While on the bund my guide Saman pointed at two large ducks perched on a dead tree not too far from the bund and asked what they could be. Having looked at them through the bins I was thrilled as they were two Comb Ducks. I counted a colony of 11 birds perched on dead trees at different location of this large tank. On our way back from Thekkama two more birds had arrived on the same tree. This is my first record of this species from Wilpattu.

As their breeding season in India is known to be from July to September and as the breeding conditions appear to be suitable in this tank with a large number of dead and decaying tree trunks I wanted to visit again to check on them. However to my disappointment on a later visit on the 19th of June 2016 not a single bird was observed.

Thus I’m not able to conclude whether these birds bred here or whether they are a flock that strayed down from the mainland accidentally during the non-migrant season.