The ruddy shelduck flies to extremes to cross the Himalayas

September 7, 2017, 8:32 a.m.
Ruddy shelducks flying through the air
Photo: Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock

Ah, ducks. Those quacking water fowl we see at ponds and overhead as the weather begins to chill. But have you ever wondered how high ducks go in the sky? You probably didn't know they can go as high as 22,000 feet.

The ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) splits its time between two spots in the Himalayas. During the winter, these ducks hang out south of the Tibetan Plateau, but they nest north of the Himalayan mountain range. This migration habit implies that the ruddy shelduck engages in some high-flying feats to get from point A to point B, so scientists decided to investigate.

Using satellite telemetry collected from 15 ducks from two different populations, researchers determined the maximum altitude and climb rates of these orangey brown ducks to find that they were reaching heights of 22,300 feet. They're not flying over Mount Everest at this height — that's still a good 7,000 feet above their observed maximum altitude — but 22,3000 feet does make ruddy shelducks the highest flying ducks around.

As to how ruddy shelducks manage to get so high remains to be understood. At those heights, hypoxia is a concern, but scientists aren't sure what adaptations the ducks have developed to cope with flying in areas were the air is thinner. They could be similar to those of bar-headed geese, the highest-flying goose on the planet. They can reach 24,000 feet.

So the next time you're contemplating the ducks a a nearby pond, think about the view some of their brethren must see as they cruise over the Himalayas.

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