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White-headed Duck

The White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala) is a small duck that inhabits fresh-water and brackish water bodies of the steppes and semi-deserts in Eurasia and North Africa. The duck can easily be recognised by its nose with a “hump”, white head and tail that points upward when the bird is on water.White-headed Ducks spend their whole lives on water and come out onto the banks extremely rarely. When in danger, the duck dives deep so that only its back is showing on the surface. These ducks are very good divers and can swim under water as long as 30 – 40m. This species mostly feeds at night by diving to different depths. They feed on molluscs, water insects and their larvae, worms, crustaceans, leaves, and the seeds of water plants.

At the beginning of the 20th century the numbers of this species fell sharply and the reasons for that still remain unclear. The White-headed Duck went completely extinct in Italy, France, Albania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Israel and Egypt. The world population of the White-headed Duck is 8,000 – 13,000 birds (Li, Mundkur 2003). The majority of the Central Asian migrating population nests in Kazakhstan.

The White-headed Duck is included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the Red Book of Kazakhstan (category 1 – threatened with extinction). However, in order to take practical measures to protect the White-headed Duck, we need to know more about its biology, range and the threats it faces in key areas of its habitat range.

Because the White-headed Duck is such an easily recognisable bird, its image features on the logo of ACBK.

ACBK’s studies of the White-headed Duck

Monitoring numbers.As part of the project “Monitoring key habitat areas of the White-headed Duck in Kazakhstan” being carried out with the support of CLP (Conservation Leadership Programme), specialists from ACBK are monitoring population numbers of the White-headed Duck in two key provinces for nesting in Kazakhstan: on the Tengiz-Korgalzhym Lake System and in the Kostanay Province. The project area encompasses 21 out of 121 of Kazakhstan’s IBAs (Important Bird Areas), most of which have not been given a protection status, and in addition includes three territories with a special protection status: Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, Naurzum Nature Reserve and Tounsor Protected Area. Monitoring spans across the nesting, post-nesting season and the period before migration, which the birds spend in Kazakhstan.

Studying the White-headed Duck’s ecology.In 2013, 45 lakes within the project area were described where a sighting of the White-headed Duck was recorded at one point or another. Hydro-biological samples were taken for analysis from four typical areas where White-headed Ducks nest. In order to figure out the criteria used by the duck when choosing and using its habitat, we are compiling a detailed description that includes:


 - Size of the water body - The extent of human impact
 - Depth - The presence and character of tributaries
 - Degree of water transparency - Growth stage and species composition
 - Salinity - A selection of plankton and benthos samples
  - The characteristics of the banks

To have the most reliable results, it is necessary to monitor the habitat areas over a long period of time.

Pinpointing threats.The main threats faced by the White-headed Duck in Kazakhstan is habitat loss caused by different factors (disruption of the natural hydrological regime, irrational use of water resources, climate change, etc.) and direct human impact (disturbance, death in fish nets, illegal shooting, etc.).

In order to evaluate the degree of the threat of direct human impact, the locals, users of the natural resources, will be asked to complete questionnaires. 

In order to uncover the threats related to the state of the habitat, we need to monitor it on a long-term basis. In 2013, a pilot area was monitored. This gives us the chance to later on analyse the changes in its state and the effects on White-headed Duck numbers and their nesting success.

Raising awareness.In order to raise awareness among the local population about the protection status of the White-headed Duck we are planning to carry out an awareness campaign. Literature will be distributed amongst the users of natural resources within White-headed Duck’s nesting and migration ranges in Kazakhstan. The information will be available on the ACBK website and in the ACBK offices in Almaty and Astana.

The project is carried out with financial support from the Conservation Leadership Programme and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia (OSME).