Lost Birds

Keeping the Dream Alive: an update on the search for the Pink-headed Duck

Biodiversity Heritage Library/Public Domain

Laura Moreno / 8 Jul 2024 / Pink-headed Duck

The year is 1998, and Richard Thorns is on his lunch break from working as a menswear sales assistant in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, southern England. He heads to the local library to find a book to read and at random picks up a copy of Vanishing Birds by Tim Halliday. While flipping through its pages, an illustration stops him in his tracks. Richard stares in wonder at bubble-gum pink feathers and his life is never the same.

That same year, on another continent over 8,000 kilometers away, Mr. Ko Pho Thar Hew is on his way to work at a nearby goldmine on the Ma Pyin Road bordering the Naung Kwin wetland in Kachin State, Myanmar. Walking by, he inadvertently spooks a flock of ducks into flight. Looking up at the birds, one duck stands out to him as strange. As he watches them fly away, he thinks he sees a bright pink head and long slender neck moving through the sky.

The rare bird in question? The nearly mythical Pink-headed Duck. Extremely shy, possibly nocturnal, and known for laying perfectly spherical eggs, the Pink-headed Duck has not been seen conclusively in the wild since 1949 in India and is one of Re:wild’s “most wanted” lost species by the Search for Lost Species and one of the 120 lost birds by the Search for Lost Birds. 

Most recently, an expedition back to Kachin State came back with news that a key survey site had been destroyed by regional gold mining. While this heartbreaking finding might have deterred others, the passion and commitment of the team searching for the species remains unruffled. The hope of finding the Pink-headed Duck is still very much alive, and some might even say contagious.

Over a half a century of searching

The news of habitat destruction from the latest expedition comes after decades of searching for the Pink-headed Duck, representing some of the considerable obstacles to searching for the elusive bird, including difficult-to-navigate terrain and a volatile political situation.

But unconfirmed sightings have left birders and international conservation organizations determined and hopeful that the Pink-headed Duck may still be out there in Myanmar’s dense, largely inaccessible elephant grasslands, swamps and floodplains. Reports of sightings emanating from Kachin State have trickled in over the years, made more promising by the fact that these low-lying swamps, rivers and marshes still resemble the habitats that once existed in the Pink-headed duck’s last strongholds of Bangladesh, West Bengal and northern India.

Perhaps the most determined and hopeful of all is still Richard, who after leaving his job as a shop clerk after that fateful day in 1998, embarked on a decades-long quest to find the species that stole his heart and has become the proud expedition leader of the search.

An incredible ambassador

Since his initial visits to Myanmar, Richard has gone on a total of nine trips. While his journeys have had a few bumps in the road — including breaking his hand, being chased by water buffalo, and one notable experience inside a spider-filled tent — Richard has remained undaunted and ever-resourceful. 

For Re:wild’s Lost Species Officer, Christina Biggs, Richard epitomizes so much of what the Lost Species program is about.

“Richard has been an incredible ambassador for the Search for Lost Species, highlighting the diversity of methods there are to search for lost species…Sometimes researchers can get stuck in a certain track, so it is a breath of fresh air to see someone like Richard, whose optimism and perseverance is not only heartening but contagious.”

While not coming from a traditional scientific background, Richard has found strategic and methodical ways to work with the help of local and international collaborators. Their strategies have included interviewing local farmers and hunters using illustrated flashcards, surveying flooded wetlands using boats and elephants, and as of the latest expedition, using 10 cameras on floating platforms, a technique that has never been tried before.

One of Richard’s key collaborators in the search for the Pink-headed Duck, is field researcher and top Burmese birder, Lay Win.

Lay Win has become an indispensable member of the team, providing both translation support and boots on the ground. It was Lay Win who came across the destroyed habitat at the planned survey site while going to set up the floating cameras. The damage he saw had left the jungle pools, oxbows and potentially even the course of the Nat Kuange River heavily contaminated and altered.

While a blow to the team, hope is still far from lost. That very same creativity and ingenuity that has guided the search this far has led to a new strategy and one that shows promise.

Hope far from lost

After the news of the destruction, thanks to their many trips around Kachin State, Richard and Lay Win had some clear ideas for alternative habitats to survey. With the help of his late friend and collaborator, MJS Mackenzie, Richard even has a new hypothesis from studying the flyway routes and patterns of possible internal migratory behaviors.

The Pink-headed Duck could be following the rains through the flyways up to the Hukaung Valley in the wet season and then down to areas in the south in the dry season. Now equipped with cameras and a strategy to head into unsurveyed territory, Lay Win is looking toward the northwest, up to the Hukaung Valley tiger reservation where new and pristine wetlands lie above any mining areas.

Keeping the dream alive

As promising as this next chapter is, it’s bittersweet for Richard, who due to the latest travel restrictions on foreigners, will have to support and watch from afar. But the search is in good hands.

“I remember chugging up the Chindwin River with Lay Win,” Richard tells me. “It was beautiful country, perfect for the Pink-headed Duck, in the Htarmanthi Wildlife Sanctuary… And Lay Win said to me, ‘I have to tell you, Richard, when I first met you I really thought that you were just this guy that wanted to chase off and look for strange things. And I kind of went along with it. But my position has changed. Now we have to find the Pink-headed Duck. We have to change history.’”

While Richard and Lay Win’s dream could seem far-fetched, the comeback of another rare bird is proof of hope not lost. The Madagascar Pochard, rediscovered in 2006, in northern Madagascar has gone from the original sighting of nine birds to a total of 82 recorded individuals in the wild, with a successful conservation breeding program launched in 2009.

For Richard, he needs no other example of hope to believe in the inevitable rediscovery of the bird that has shaped the last quarter century of his life.

When asked the question, as so many have over the past two decades, what it would be like if the Pink-headed Duck were to be found, Richard smiles.

“I mean, you’ve got to keep the dream alive. The whole point is, you know, if you’re doing anything, it’s got to be fun! You’ve got to have a great time; otherwise, why do it? I mean, I’m serious about what I do, but I’m not serious about the way I go about things in life.” Richard takes a moment and imagines. “But finding it. Blimey. There would be lots of people, I think, who would genuinely say, ‘I always thought he’d find it. He found it just as I always thought he would,’ and I think they’d be telling the truth.”