Dear Bird Folks,
I’m a student at UMass Amherst, and just read about a Mandarin Duck that was being seen in New York’s Central Park. The rare bird is attracting crowds of people and lots of media attention. Since I have a break coming up, I’m wondering if you think it would be worth driving to NYC to see it?
– Hannah, Amherst, MA
Probably not, Hannah,
I’m not sure where the expression “wet blanket” came from, but it was possibly written with me in mind, or at least with my answer to your question in mind. When I first heard about this duck I thought, this is no BFD (big freakin’ deal). Yet, everyone else seems to be thrilled about it and I don’t get it. For anyone who missed the story about an odd duck in Central Park, I’ll fill you in. Then you can decide for yourself if I’m truly being a wet blanket and it actually is a BFD.
The excitement all started back on October 10th, when the Manhattan Bird Alert posted photos of a male Mandarin Duck swimming with the Mallards in a Central Park pond, which is known as “The Pond” (how clever). After the posting, birders and non-birders from all over went to check it out. It’s easy to understand some of the excitement. After all, male Mandarin Ducks are perhaps the most colorful and ornate ducks in the world. If this bird is so exceptional, why am I not excited about it, you ask? It’s because, in this case, it’s not a real wild bird; it’s likely just a pet bird that has escaped from somewhere nearby. Like domestic chickens and geese, Mandarin Ducks are readily sold and shipped to backyards and estates around the country. Instead of being an exotic species from Asia, the duck in Central Park is probably an escapee from a yard in New Jersey. FYI: It must have come from NJ because pet ducks are illegal in NYC, and we all know New Yorkers never break the law. Also, according to nyc.gov, in addition to ducks, the city also forbids several other “pets,” including (and this is totally real), dingoes, mountain lions and walruses. Darn it! There goes my dream of living in a Fifth Avenue penthouse…with a pet walrus. Another dream crushed.
As the name suggests, Mandarin Ducks are native to East Asia (China, Korea, Japan and parts of Russia). Feral populations also breed in Europe, especially in England, and perhaps in a few sites in California. The ornate plumage of the male mandarin is over the top and almost defies description. He has a red beak, a purple chest, and a white face, with long rusty “whiskers” on his neck. And if all that isn’t enough craziness, the bird also has two large orange feathery fins, or “sails,” sticking up on his back. You will not confuse this bird with anything else, except maybe a character in a Cirque du Soleil show. The female, as usual, looks nothing like her mate. She is mostly drab brown, with a speckled chest. A bit of white around each eye is about all the pizzazz she’s been given. Where’s the justice?
If you look at a picture of a female Mandarin Duck (which you should do, after first being gobsmacked by the male’s photo), you might notice that she looks very much like a Wood Duck hen, and there is a good reason for that. The two birds (as well as the males, of course) are very closely related. While most other duck species nest on the ground, Mandarin Ducks (just like woodys) lay their eggs up in trees. Each spring, the female squeezes her plump body into a tree cavity and lays about a dozen eggs. When the eggs hatch, the female flies to the ground and begins to call for her chicks to join her. If the tiny ducklings want to be with their mother, they will have to take a serious leap of faith by freefalling from ten or twenty or even sixty feet high. In a perfect world, the chicks would land in relatively soft water, but often the nests are farther inland. This means the babies’ fall is broken by solid ground. Ouch! It sounds awful, but the fluffy chicks can easily handle the plunge. After dusting themselves off, they quickly join their mother and head for water, none the worse for wear.
The Chinese culture has long considered Mandarin Ducks to be symbols of love and fidelity. Newlyweds are regularly given carvings of Mandarin Ducks, as it is thought the birds remain with the same partners throughout their lives. However, I’m not sure scientific evidence supports this claim. In reality, the ducks probably aren’t very faithful, but I’m not going to tell the newlyweds and spoil their day. (See, I’m not always a wet blanket.) One website states that a married couple should place a mandarin carving in the southwest corner of the house, as this is where the “love energy is strongest.” That’s a cute story, but my wife would never let me do that in our house. Our television is located in the southwest corner and if I ever replaced it with a carving of a duck, both the duck and I would find ourselves out in the yard.
I know I’ve been a little negative about this famous Mandarin Duck, Hannah, but that doesn’t mean I’m against going to NYC. A birding trip to Central Park is well worth your time. A search on the Manhattan Bird Alert site tells us that folks have been seeing Barred, Saw-wet and Long-eared Owls, plus a Merlin. There was also a Harris’s Sparrow, which is unusual here in the East. However, the rare sparrow hasn’t been seen recently. (Perhaps the Merlin knows something about that.) Just remember, if you do visit NYC, you should probably leave your pet walrus at home. City people can be so uptight.