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Radjah Shelduck (Rajah rajah) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Previously placed in the genus Tadorna (Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)


  • Genus/species: radjah
    • Hindi for “king” or “ruler” (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Word originated in India and spread to Malay
    • Radjah Shelduck may be named for its regal appearance or possibly is an Indian name for a duck (Marchant and Higgins 1990)


  • Tadorna radjah (Phillips 1922; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018; Frith 1967)
  • Tadorna radjah flindersi (Phillips 1922)
  • Anas radjah (Garnot 1826, Phillips 1922; Marchant and Higgins 1990; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)

Common names

  • Raja Shelduck, White-headed Shelduck, Burdekin Shelduck (English) (Pizzey 2012; Pratt and Beehler 2014; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Phillips (1922) also uses the name “White Duck” from northwest Australia
      • Subspecies: Moluccan Radjah Shelduck, Australian Radjah Shelduck (Johnstone 1968); Red-backed Radjah Shelduck, Black-backed Radjah Shelduck (e.g., Callaghan and Green 1993)
    • In old texts, shelduck referred to as “sheldrake” (Phillips 1922)
  • Tadorne radjah, casarca radjah, sarcelle des Malais (French) (Phillips 1922; Johnsgard 2010a; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
  • Tarro raja, Radjah gans (German) (Phillips 1922; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
  • Oca rajá (Spanish) (Johnsgard 2010a)

Other local names

(Phillips 1922)

  • Australia
    • Comerdo
    • Mahdo or Mardo
  • Aru Islands
    • Bursil
    • Birgual
  • Anda Island
    • Umukia

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Anatidae (ducks, geese, swans) and Dendrocygnidae (whistling ducks) diverged about 35 Ma (Eocene) (Sun et al. 2017)
  • Ducks (Anatidae)
    • Rapid and recent diversification, especially during the Plio-Pleistocene (Sun et al. 2017)
  • Rajah forms a paraphyletic clade with Tadorna (Sun et al. 2017; Fig. 2, Clade D)

Closest living (extant) relatives

(Worthy 2009; Sun et al. 2017, except as noted)

  • Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)
    • Sun et al. (2017) propose this species be placed in genus Tadorna
  • Shelducks (Tadorna spp.)
    • Livezey (1997) suggests Radjah Shelduck and Common Shelduck are closely related (based on morphology)

Cultural History

Culture and folklore

  • Aboriginal peoples of Australia
    • Radjah Shelduck eggs hunted in northwestern Australia (Phillips 1922)
  • Other notes on historical sport hunting
    • Meat described as “coarse and of an unpleasant flavor” (Phillips 1922)
    • Frith (1967) comments: “The Burdekin Duck [Radjah Shelduck] is not considered a good game duck by true sportsmen. It is very tame and slow-flying and its flesh is coarse and of low quality. … Although it is still moderately common in remote areas it is very vulnerable to shooting, being local in habits, sedentary, and easily shot.”



Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Anseriformes (Wagler, 1831) — ducks, geese, swans, screamers, waterfowl

Family: Anatidae — ducks, geese, swans

Genus: Radjah (Reichenbach, 1853)

Species: Radjah radjah (Lesson, 1828) — Radjah Shelduck

Subspecies: R. r. radjah (Lesson, 1828) — Moluccas Islands, New Guinea, Indonesia, and nearby islands
Subspecies: R. r. rufitergum (E. J. O. Hartert, 1905) — northern and eastern tropical Australia

Sources: Carboneras and Kirwan (2018), Gill and Donsker (2018)

Colored Chestnut and White

Pl. 16-Radjah Shelduck, A natural history of ducks

An illustration of a Radjah Shelduck and two Common Shelducks by Louis Agassiz Fuentes (1922).

Plate 16 in John C. Phillip's A Natural History of Ducks, Volume 1 (1922).

Image credit: Made available by Biodiversity Heritage Library (contributed to BHL by Smithsonian Libraries). Book images: Public domain. Flickr image: Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

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