Be Your Own Birder

To Count or Not: The Mandarin Duck

Most birders, and plenty of non-birders, have heard of the Mandarin duck making a name for itself in Central Park in recent weeks. It’s an interesting and surprisingly divisive sighting of a beautiful duck, and there seem to be two principle schools of thought about its visit.

Mandarin Duck Drake

Mandarin Duck Drake – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

The first is awe, amazement, and delight. This is a beautiful duck, and a Mandarin drake in his full breeding plumage – as this fine specimen is – is arguably one of the most beautiful ducks in the world. Many people, whether or not they consider themselves birders, are entranced with the duck, enjoy seeing it, and are even fretting about its prospects without mates and how it may endure the bitterness of a New York City winter. There are calls to help the duck, to ensure it survives, to preserve its uniqueness and beauty.

The other side, most often presented by hard core birders, ornithologists, and devoted naturalists, is less enthusiastic. The bird is clearly an escapee from a private collection (it is banded, yet no official organization has come forth to claim ownership), undoubtedly did not arrive in Central Park without human assistance, and could usurp food, shelter, and nesting sites from native ducks in the park, including mallards, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers. While no one has been so cruel as to suggest removing the duck, there is more than a little shrugging and lack of interest from so-called “official” channels.

These two sides are not exclusive, of course, nor do they represent the opinions of every birder, ornithologist, wildlife official, naturalist, or anyone else. But they do illustrate just how divisive one bird can be, even a beautiful one.

Personally, I fall much more on the “wow” side of the spectrum, and I encourage anyone who wants to enjoy the Mandarin duck to embrace the opportunity. These ducks are native to eastern Asia including much of China and Japan, but because of their beauty they have been introduced in many other places. Escaped Mandarin duck populations have grown and thrived in many different countries far from their native range, including different areas of western Europe, Iceland, New Zealand, and in the United States, including Florida, Arizona, California, Oregon, and other states. Even without thriving populations, occasional sightings of Mandarin ducks might be reported just about anywhere when an industrious and conniving duck escapes from a zoo, aviary, farm, petting zoo, or garden.

As for the big question – does the Mandarin duck count on a life list? – that’s one every birder needs to answer for themselves. I am picky about my own life list, but yes, I have a Mandarin duck on it, a male that I saw in his breeding plumage in 2011, yet I’ve never been to Asia. I saw it in Utah, on a naturalized pond in a park in the northern part of the state, where a few Mandarin ducks were known to live, and where I went in the specific hopes of seeing them, just as many people are traveling to Central Park to see this beauty. Where did these Utah ducks come from? No one knows, but undoubtedly they were escapees in years past and have adapted to that particular park, with no great ambition to move elsewhere. They shared the park with other ducks, including mallards and wood ducks, and because there were both hens and drakes present, it’s entirely likely that their population would continue to grow.

I chose to count my Mandarin duck for several reasons. First, I was absolutely confident in the identification – which was the easy part, given how distinctive these birds are. Second, the ducks I saw were not contained or restricted in any way – they were free to swim, fly, and roam as they saw fit, and were not in an aviary, zoo, or other contained environment. Third, they were subsisting on their own, foraging naturally and seeking shelter when needed – they were not relying solely on feeding stations (though there were feeders in the park), coops,  or other assistance to survive. For me, that makes for a fun and memorable lifer.

If the Mandarin duck in Central Park creates a fun and memorable lifer for anyone else, so much the better. It just may be the spark bird someone needs to really get interested in all birds, and it will certainly raise awareness that there are beautiful birds to enjoy worldwide. No matter what types of birders we may be – and we are all most certainly different – that’s one thing we can all appreciate.

Central Park in Fall

Central Park in Fall – Photo by IIP Photo Archive / Ed Yourdon

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