Recently, the mysterious appearance of a mandarin duck alongside the native mallards in ponds across Central Park has captivated New York City, with large groups lining up to catch a glimpse (and snap a photo) of the brightly colored bird. It's unclear where he came from—though he has a band on his leg, he doesn't belong to any zoos in the area, which has led some to speculate that he was a pet who either escaped or was dumped by his owner in the park—but one thing is clear. This "hot duck" is taking the internet by storm. Curious about where the mandarin duck is from, what it eats, if you can keep one as a pet, and even what it tastes like? Read on.
1. ITS NAME MEANS "WIGGED DIVING BIRD."
Dubbed Aix galericulata by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, the Aix in the mandarin duck's scientific name is Greek for an unknown diving bird mentioned by Aristotle. The galericulata is something like "wig" or "cap" and references the bright breeding plumage on the male’s head.
2. IT'S NOT AS EXOTIC AS YOU MIGHT THINK.
The native breeding area of the mandarin duck is eastern Siberia, Japan, China, and parts of North Korea, and they overwinter in southern China and Japan. But according to the citizen science website eBird, mandarin ducks have been spotted in multiple sites on the west coast of America—there's a growing population of the birds in California—and are present in Florida and a few other isolated areas. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes that “Species are present but not confirmed to be breeding. Population persists only with repeated introductions and/or escapes of individuals.”
They’re much more common in Europe, especially southeast England, which has an estimated population of around 7000 individuals. The ducks were mostly released in the early 20th century, although there are records of introductions as early as 1745 [PDF]. They've also been found in other parts of Europe, Israel, and Africa (although, as in Florida, some of these populations are escaped ornamental birds that aren't necessarily breeding on their own [PDF]).
3. MANDARIN DUCKS AREN'T DOING WELL IN THEIR NATIVE TERRITORY.
Sadly, they're threatened by severe habitat loss across their native range and have a global population of around 65,000 individuals. As a result, the European population is often considered important for the species survival. Officially, however, the bird is classed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN.
4. IT HAS DEEP MEANING IN MANY EAST ASIAN CULTURES.
It's thought that the first reference to mandarin ducks was from the time of Confucius, where they were name-dropped in a song. They're also significant in Buddhism, where there are references to their compassion and, most significantly, their marital loyalty. Multiple legends in Japan refer to a male and female mandarin duck getting separated and using supernatural means (such as transforming into humans) to be reunited.
5. THEY HAVE AN AMERICAN COUSIN.
Mandarin ducks belong to the genus Aix, alongside the American wood duck. They're both hole-nesting ducks with brightly colored males. But perhaps most surprisingly for ducks, they have claws. The claws allow them to perch on branches, and in the case of baby mandarin ducks, one paper says that when they're as young as one day old, they can dig those claws into wood, then leap half a foot, and then dig in the other claw [PDF].
6. MALE AND FEMALE MANDARIN DUCKS LOOK A LOT DIFFERENT.
The male mandarin duck is extremely easy to identify. Considered one of the prettiest birds, it has orange, green, white, blue-ish, and black feathers, some of which curl up into a "sail" shape. (However, in eclipse plumage—a set of feathers sported by the ducks when it's not the mating season—the male is a much more standard gray.)
Female mandarin ducks are nowhere near as distinctive, and it can often be difficult to distinguish them from the closely related native female wood ducks (the males look completely different) [PDF]. Female mandarin ducks are gray but have a pale tip at the bill and a stripe behind the eye.
7. THEY HAVE ELABORATE COURTSHIP RITUALS.
Mandarin duck courtship rituals are, as is probably expected from their plumage, impressive affairs. They mock drink and mock preen, they shake, and emit a sound that one researcher likened to "a half-repressed sneeze." Most of the rest of the time they're rarely vocal, with the occasional "staccato hwick or uib uib" from the male and a "coquette call" from the female.
As for their famous monogamy, it’s thought to derive from observations of their frequent courtship displays and frequent ejection of intruders. In reality, they likely are monogamous for at least several years, although bigamy/polygamy is not unheard of.
8. THE YOUNG LEAP OUT OF TREES.
The natural nesting habitat of mandarin ducks is in tree holes, which can sometimes be up to 30 feet off the ground. The bird lays nine to 12 white eggs that are incubated for around a month. When the eggs hatch (which occurs within a few hours of each other), the ducklings start to crawl out of the nest. To get out of the tree and—eventually—into the water, the baby bird flings itself out of the hole and free-falls to the ground below (often with a little bounce). According to mandarin duck scholar Christopher Lever, "The female stands at the base of the tree with her head pointing upwards, uttering a soft encouraging call to her offspring."
9. IT'S NOT VERY TASTY.
It's widely said that one of the factors that has allowed mandarin ducks to survive in east Asia is their taste—which is not particularly nice. Christopher Lever quotes an authority as saying, "Mandarin duck in China are rather dirty feeders, often eating snails, small mice, fish spawn, etc., and consequently are well known to have an unpleasant taste."
10. MANDARIN DUCKS CAN HELP YOUR FENG SHUI.
Feng Shui is a traditional Chinese method of balancing energy forces, and a large part of some schools involves placing certain objects to match and harness that energy. Many modern Feng Shui practitioners claim that, because of their association with love and monogamy, having a pair of mandarin duck figurines can attract and enhance love. Practitioners advise placing the figurines so they either face each other or the same direction. Never separate them, and if one breaks, the entire pair should be replaced.
11. YOU CAN BUY ONE.
Mandarin ducks are very popular pets; in fact, according to one report from the Netherlands, they're "by far the most popular duck kept in private collections" in that region [PDF]. They're considered easy to keep, but just because you can buy one doesn't mean it's legal to have one: In New York, for instance, it's illegal to keep a duck as a pet (alongside bears, cobras, whales, and many other creatures).
12. IT MIGHT POSE A THREAT TO NATIVE SPECIES.
Paul Sweet, ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, tweeted that it was possible that mandarin ducks could become established and compete with native wood ducks. Little research has been done on mandarin ducks in the United States, but a recent report from the Netherlands suggests that there might be cause for concern [PDF]. There is some evidence that they destroy the eggs of other birds in a lab setting, although the extent of this behavior in the wild is unclear. They're also known to drive other birds away from food—although again, their impact is unknown. As for hybridizing, there’s a myth that they can’t reproduce with other birds. While crosses with other ducks are rare for mandarins, there have been reports in Europe of birds appearing that seem to be mixes of introduced mandarin ducks and introduced American wood ducks.