The South African shelduck is a quite a large, goose-like member of the duck family, with a length of approximately 64 cm. The males are slightly bigger than the females and the sexes differ in their plumage. Both sexes have predominantly light chestnut bodies, marked with black, white and green; black bills, legs and feet and dark brown eyes. The males have all grey heads; the females have white faces and black crown, nape and neck.


The South African shelduck is endemic to the southern African region and their preferred habitat is inland dams and rivers, especially in the more arid areas in the south and east of the region. Their distribution and range may be influenced through their preference for nesting in the abandoned holes made by aardvarks or other mammals.

The first part of the English name “shelduck”, “sheld” means “pied”, and elsewhere in the world members of the same family are called sheldrakes or, in the case of larger species, sheldgeese.

When they are in the water, South African shelducks feed on algae and crustaceans and when on land they feed mainly on grain such as maize and wheat.

South African shelducks often call in duet, particularly when in flight, with the male calling a loud “honk” and the female responding “hunk”.

South African shelducks are monogamous and build a nest in an abandoned burrow in the ground, usually that of an aardvark, although burrows of springhares and porcupines may also be used. These burrows provide a cool nesting area in the otherwise hot environment often favoured by the shelducks. The female lays a clutch of between six and ten eggs which hatch after an incubation period of approximately 30 days.

The scientific binomial for the South African shelduck is Tadorna cana; Tadorna from the French for “a shelduck”, and cana from the Latin for ”grey”, referring to the head of the drake. Thus the name describes a shelduck with a grey head. Can’t say clearer than that.

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