Rare, endangered and beautiful, the Masked Finfoot shines among the birds of Bangladesh. In the entire world, it is only the Bangladesh Sundarban where it can be found in good numbers. This secretive and mysterious bird sometimes behaves like a duck and sometimes like a bird. The mangrove forest provides grounds for it to live, eat and breed.
About ten years ago, it was estimated that perhaps one thousand Masked Finfoots survive in the wild, the vast majority of them in our Sundarban. However, in a recent paper published in the ornithological journal Forktail, scientists report on recent research on the bird in nine countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. While Bangladesh stands out as the hotspot, the key finding of the paper is disappointing: there are far fewer Masked Finfoot individuals left in the world today than we thought and their number is decreasing.
I saw the Masked Finfoot in Sundarban in one out of every three trips I made there. It is indeed an unusual sight. After watching one for a few seconds you quickly realize that it is unlike any other bird. It swims like a duck but its feet are not webbed like a duck's feet. It has plump toes called "lobes" that enable it to climb trees. It is a poor flier but it can run fast, even on Sundarban's mud. It has a unique way of sitting on a sloping bank of a creek or canal, with one leg folded and the other leg erect to compensate for the slope. When frightened it runs or flies, but sometimes it freezes and sits in this funny posture.
Masked Finfoots seem to blend well with Sundarban's ecology. They build their nests on Gewa tree branches that extend overhead across smaller creeks. The pick their food from the muddy banks of creeks when low tide leaves small creatures exposed. Typically they catch small crab and insects, shrimps, small fish and worms. They swim in the water and wallow in the mud.
After seeing a few Masked Finfoots I surmised that they were nowhere near as wily and skittish as wild ducks are. They were hard to find, but I could not tell whether this was because of their small numbers or because they hid well. In general we were able to approach them closer than we would approach wild ducks. Another point working against them: they place their nests at spots easily accessible by predators or fishermen.
In the paper, Cambridge University Ph.D. researcher Sayam U. Chowdhury along with his co-authors report that Cambodia and Bangladesh are the only two countries left where Masked Finfoots are known to breed today. They estimate that 108-304 adult individuals survive in the wild today.
For survival of this species we need to act urgently on two fronts. One is learning more about the Masked Finfoot. For example, we know little about its seasonal migrations, how it breeds and raises chicks and how climate change might affect it. The other is active conservation measures, including ceasing the clearance of forested riverine vegetation and eliminating the use of monofilament gillnets.
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