No-fly zone victory in duck war

THERE is now a no-fly zone over Libya.

According to DEFRA, the Department of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs in Britain, a similar measure introduced eight years ago helped resolve another conflict in the Mediterranean area.

A mini-Spanish Civil War had broken out among two species of duck and conservationists in Britain took drastic measures.

DEFRA, in a progress report, claims that, as a result of these, the duck war is being won.

Ruddy ducks, native to North and South America, belong to a group of waterfowl known as ‘stiff-tails’ of which there are only seven species worldwide.

Ruddy drakes have red-brown bodies, white heads and black crowns.

Their ridiculously large bills are bright blue and the stiff paddle-shaped tails stick up like those of wrens. Subsisting on a diet of aquatic plants and creepy-crawlies, ruddys resemble grebes more than ducks, diving and swimming underwater.

During the 1930’s ruddy ducks were imported into wildfowl collections in Britain.

In 1953, some of them escaped and, in 1960, bred successfully for the first time in the wild.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Atlas of Breeding Birds, there were 570 ruddy pairs living wild in Britain between 1988 and 91. Some had crossed to Ireland, 15 to 20 being recorded here, mainly around Lough Neagh. Numbers have risen since then. There are thought to be about 90 birds in Ireland now. Some have been seen as far south as Wexford. Escapes from collections have occurred elsewhere in Europe and ruddy ducks are breeding in most western countries. In 1990, there were thought to be about 1,500 in Europe. They even managed to colonise Iceland. This is a migratory species in its native America and European ruddys have inherited the wander lust.

Some British escapees and their descendants began visiting Spain.

There they encountered another species of stiff-tail, the closely related white-headed duck.

White-heads resemble their American cousins but the drake’s plumage is brown rather than ruddy and their heads are almost completely white.

Accomplished divers, they can spend long periods under water and travel up to 30 metres at a time. In one crucial respect, however, they differ from the Americans; they don’t migrate. They won’t ever venture out of sight of land and they avoid deep water. As a result the population has fragmented into isolated pockets in Spain, Turkey and North Africa. This is not a desirable situation as there is no genetic interchange between the populations.

The black crowns and bright red-brown plumage of the American ruddy drakes have made them a hit with Spanish white-headed females.

The native drakes, less aggressive than the invaders, have been losing out in the mating game; the females seem to regard their lawful husbands and suitors as weaklings and wimps. At any rate, white-headed/ruddy duck unions have become commonplace. Interbreeding between species seldom matters because the offspring of such unions are hardly ever fertile. White-heads and ruddys are so closely related that hybrid offspring are able to breed. Worse still, the aggressive traits of the ruddy drakes are inherited by hybrid birds which go on to oust other white-heads.

This development has ominous implications for the white-head, one of Europe’s rarest duck species.

Something radical needed to be done or the species would be eclipsed.

The spectre of extinction loomed.

Ornithologists demanded a cull of ruddy ducks in Britain, the main source of the problem.

After much soul-searching, it was decided to impose a no-fly zone. Ruddy ducks there would be hunted down and shot before they could visit Spain.

The anti-hunting and anti-cruel sports lobbies opposed the cull, criticising the RSPB for supporting the killing of birds.

The attack on the ruddys began in 2003.

According to the DEFRA report, 1,365 were shot in 2008, 717 in 2009 and 386 in 2010.

It claims that numbers are now down to 120. The goal, of course, is total annihilation. This should be possible to keep the numbers down.

DEFRA considers that the measures taken to date have been very effective.

“We remain committed to continuing the eradication programmed through to completion” declared junior environment minister Richard Benyon.

You’re next Gaddafi!

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