Dear Readers, the Pochard is one of those ducks that it’s easy to take for granted. With its dapper plumage of mahogany and smoke with ruby eyes it’s a handsome bird, but not one to elicit a sudden intake of breath. And yet this is a bird that has been wintering in large numbers in the UK since records began, and we also have a decent resident breeding population, especially in Northern Ireland, where the populations on Lough Neagh and Lough Beg number about 7000 pairs. Once committed, each pair of pochards sticks close together, the bespectacled female appearing to take things very seriously while the male gets on with the important business of looking as distinguished as possible. In the breeding season, however, all that decorum gets dropped completely. Listen to this group of displaying male pochards in the recording below. I’m sure that they’re saying ‘Yahoo!’ (recording by Jarek Matusiak and made in Poland). If you don’t love pochards before hearing this, I’m sure you will afterwards.
This is the rather less musical call of a female pochard taking off from a lake (recording made by Peter Boesman in Belgium)
And this is a female ‘growling’, though whether she’s telling the male in the background to come on or go away is anyone’s guess (recording by Simon Elliott in Northumberland). All the recordings are from Xeno Canto which is a whole world of wonders for anyone interested in animal sounds.
The word ‘pochard’ probably comes from the Norman French word for ‘poach’ (which is presumably what people often did) or ‘poke’ (which is probably a reference to the bird diving down and poking its bill into the mud to get the small invertebrates that form its food.
Pochards were an important source of food in medieval times. It wasn’t an easy duck to catch however – they are wily, wary and fast on the wing once they get airborne. Good for them, I say – they have often here from the bitter winters of Eastern Europe and Russia, and they deserve to rest. This is all the more important as the bird is globally threatened, with its global population down from 2 to 2.5 million birds in 2016 to just over a million birds in 2021, a terrifying drop. As usual, there are many factors – pochards are quite specific about the habitats that suit them, and the number one reason for the decline appears to be the loss of suitable breeding sites in Eastern Europe, and the general problem of water pollution from agricultural run-off right across their range.
Like many ducks, pochards are eaten by mink, foxes, raccoon dogs and wild boar, who also trample and eat the eggs. It’s also reported that pochards might be suffering from the decline in black-headed gull nesting sites – ducks that nest alongside the gulls have bigger broods, probably because the two species can share warnings about approaching predators (and if a black-headed gull is worried you’ll definitely hear about it). It just goes to show how interwoven different species are, and how if one starts to have problems there are knock-on effects for everybody else.
In many places along their migration route, pochards are also hunted, often illegally, and this seems to affect breeding females and juveniles disproportionately. The increased use of water bodies for recreation (i.e. idiots on jet skis and in speedboats) doesn’t help. And finally, climate change is increasing the salinity of many of the places where pochard used to feed en route to their wintering or breeding grounds, making them unsuitable. All in all, these familiar and well-loved ducks are facing a whole barrage of challenges.
All this, I know, sounds extremely depressing. And it’s important not to get Pollyanna-ish about the way that things are going. But still, we have to believe that each of us matters, and that each of us can do something, and so we can. One organisation that I like very much that supports all manner of waterbirds is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, founded by Sir Peter Scott. It has some wonderful reserves all over the UK, including the original Wetlands Centre at Barnes in London which is still an amazing place to visit. And with Christmas coming up, maybe there’s something that would work as a present for someone.
Another organisation that is very close to my heart is, of course, the London Wildlife Trust, which manages Woodberry Wetlands, Walthamstow Wetlands and Camley Street Natural Park among many other sites (and I’ve seen pochard at both Woodberry and Walthamstow Wetlands). You can help them (or your local Wildlife Trust) out in a variety of ways, but for those of us who already feed the birds, it’s worth noting that the Wildlife Trusts benefit from any bird food that you buy from Vine House Farm, who grow a lot of the seeds etc on site, making it much more sustainable.
It’s going to be a hard winter, I know, and many of us will just about be getting by without any spare cash for charities, so over the course of this series I’ll be thinking about ways that we can help our beleaguered birds without having to spend any money. In the meantime, though, let’s see if we can’t get out for a walk to appreciate them as the days shorten and the nights draw in. Winter can be an exciting time to see birds, and in other news apparently there is a real shortage of berries in Scandinavia and a glut here, so keep your eyes peeled for waxwings, especially if you live in eastern Scotland or on the east coast. Fingers crossed!