By Alex Israel
On October 10, 2018, I heard the first reports of an exotic duck in my backyard, thanks to a tweet from Manhattan Bird Alert.
I didn’t think much of it. I was too busy that weekend to look for a duck – my birding agenda was packed with a list of migratory warblers, sparrows and kinglets to catch taking a break in Central Park before continuing their journey south for the winter.
But two weeks later, the duck resurfaced at the 79th Street Boat Basin before making its way to The Pond, a body of water at the southern edge of Central Park. And like the thousands of people who have flocked there to catch a glimpse since, I couldn’t ignore him.
Mandarin ducks are native to Eastern Asia, though they are closely related to the North American wood duck, a species frequently found in Central Park. Male Mandarin ducks are known for their beautiful colors and bright pink beak. They are not, however, known for their ability to migrate across continents.
So where did this one come from? Early reporting from the New York Times discerned that he was not an escapee from any of the local zoos run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Other theories include that he fled from private captivity in a nearby area, or that he was released by an incapable owner. (I like to think his presence is proof that teleportation is possible.)
At face value, my afternoon with the Mandarin duck was not particularly spectacular. I wasn’t witness to a surprise mating ritual, or any territorial battles for King Duck of The Pond. I was weeks too early to observe his first snowfall (there is nothing cuter). What I did find was a shared moment of wonder with the other people who took time out of their day to experience a simple joy.
I walked into the Park’s 59th Street entrance prepared to do a bit of sleuthing, and instead ran headfirst into hundreds of such observers, patiently waiting for their chance to catch a fleeting glimpse as the duck made his way to and from either side of the shore. In stark contrast to my usual, individualistic approach to birding, the joy in this afternoon was driven out of a communal energy that grew with the crowd – made up of that inherently voyeuristic, yet somehow unabashedly pure force that fuels all good New York obsessions.
In my experience, nature has the rare ability to bring together even the most hardened New York personalities. As journalists, students, casual birders, and tourists alike continue to line up along The Pond, I am reminded that Mandarin duck or not, I am lucky to have access to 843 acres of (mostly) pristine park to explore, filled with its own beautiful and exciting native species of flora and fauna year-round.
— Alex Israel (@AlexIsrael) November 3, 2018
Still, as the social media buzz slowed and Thanksgiving came and went, I found myself harboring a quiet, continued gratitude for the undetermined motivation that drove the duck to Central Park. Sure, some local bird snobs might be unimpressed with Mandarin mania – but even they can’t deny the jubilation of discovering something so beautiful in such an unexpected setting.
As of November 26, 2018, a month and a half after the first sighting, our waterfowl friend has become a Central Park staple – not withstanding some brief bouts of bashfulness. Will he make it through the winter? Only time will tell. But no matter what happens, I feel thankful he chose our backyard to make his splash.
This is the first column in ‘The Bird Bulletin’ – a recurring series featuring topics about birds and the people who love, chase, and help them on the Upper West Side.