In Search of the Exclusive Pink-Headed Duck

David Seth-Smith's 1926 shot of a pair of pink-headed ducks in captivity—one of the only known photographs of the species. ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF LONDON/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
15 March 2018, 13:00
Sarah Laskow

The Pink-headed Duck was always considered rare, but it has not been conclusively seen in the wild since 1949 in India and is known from Myanmar from only two specimens. Unconfirmed reports of Pink-headed Duck sightings in 2006 spurred conservationists to continue to look for it and to try to capture the first photos of a live bird, unsuccessfully. In addition to the deep pink head and neck found on male ducks, these birds lay spherical eggs and likely live in tall, thick elephant grasslands, swamps and floodplains.

In 2017, the Pink-headed Duck eluded a Search for Lost Species expedition team in Kachin State in Myanmar. The team’s Interviews with locals suggest that the bird likely spent time at Indawgyi Lake more recently than the last record of the species in Myanmar in 1910, maybe as recently as 2010. GWC is now in the process of considering the team’s findings and will be consulting biologists and other experts to look at option for moving forward in search of the Pink-headed Duck.

“The search is not an ego thing—that’s too simplistic. I think there’s just a sort of ‘quest thread’ that runs through some people.” –Richard Thorns, Pink-headed Duck expedition leader

For British explorer Richard Thorns, the search for the Pink-headed Duck has been a long-standing test of a resilient spirit of optimism. Thorns has been committed to finding the species—last seen in India in 1949—since 1997 when he first read about the lost species in a library book on critically endangered birds on his lunch break. 

Richard Thorns, in search of the pink-headed duck. COURTESY OF RICHARD THORNS
Richard Thorns, in search of the pink-headed duck. COURTESY OF RICHARD THORNS

“I just opened up the book and there it was, and it was absolutely stunning,” Thorns says. “All the other birds in the book were saying: ‘help us’ and the Pink-headed duck was saying: ‘find me!’ In that instant I realized that I didn’t want to be a shop assistant anymore; I wanted to go look for the Pink-headed Duck. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Realizing that the Pink-headed Duck is likely extinct in India’s Assam, Manipur and Bihar, Thorns has concentrated instead on neighboring Myanmar, where he’s launched six expeditions since 2009. Between trips he works overtime to save money for his next trip. Though he hasn’t (yet) managed to find the species (but has been hospitalized by moped-riding kids, stopped by the military, been badly bitten by a spider, infected by mosquitoes and visited some of the most pristine places on the planet), Thorns says it doesn’t mean the bird is extinct, it just means they haven’t yet looked in the right place, at the right time, with the right strategy.

“I’m pretty sure that when it’s gorgeous weather in the dry season in Myanmar, people are looking for something that isn’t there,” Thorns says. “I think it’s a species that needs lots of rain, deep water, huge space and thick elephant grass and, most importantly, isolation.”

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the duck was once locally distributed in the wetlands of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The species was always considered rare, but its populations likely declined severely as a result of hunting and habitat loss. It has not been conclusively seen in the wild since 1949 in India and is known from Myanmar from only two specimens (the last [dead] Pink-headed duck was fortuitously liberated from a stall in a Mandalay market in 1910 and now resides in the American Museum of Natural History). Thorns’ team believes Myanmar is the most likely place for the bird to be holding on. 

So his Search for Lost Species team will be focusing on Indawgyi Lake, where Thorns believes the Pink-headed Duck may visit very briefly nearby to breed during the rainy season, before heading up a natural funnel to a valley that is closed off to people for the rest of the year.  And because Pink-headed “Ducks were historically thought to be hard to flush, Thorns’ team will be depending on elephants, sweeping the flooded grasslands and emulating the Victorian tiger-shooters who used to go after their quarry by elephant, in what was once Calcutta’s vast floodplains, long gone now. Thorns calls the elephants their “Burmese four-by-fours that can go anywhere.”

“It’ll also be throwing it down with rain,” says Thorns, “but to find something like a Pink-headed Duck, you’ve got to do something nobody else would do! After all, if you’re going to dream, you’ve got to dream big.”

The first Pink-headed Duck expedition have taken place at the end of October, 2017. 

Read more about the Search of the Elusive Pink-Headed Duck, visit the websites or