The Bird Bulletin: Giving Thanks for the Mandarin Duck and My Fellow Birders

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.)

A band is visible on the duck’s right ankle, which most experts point to as proof of its un-exotic origins. 

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.

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.

ABSURDITY, OUTDOORS | 16 comments | permalink
    1. Sally F says:

      Lovely!

    2. Allison says:

      He’s beautiful but the two times I’ve gone by the pond to see him, there have been 25 people tops. These reports of ‘hundreds of people’ taking photos are hyperbole.

      He did look cold on Saturday so I hope he flies south soon!

    3. June says:

      I am so grateful for these words. I have not seen the DUCK but now feel the joy he has rendered! Thank you!!

    4. KittyH says:

      For those of us with an interest in birds The Wild Bird Fund at 565 Columbus near 87th St. is a wonderful resource. Open til 8 p.m. daily, WBF invites visitors to see and meet the rescue birds and animals in their care, from pigeons, squirrels, owls and swans, to their more unusual recent guests, several woodcocks and an opossum. Very much worth a visit.

    5. Rochelle katzman says:

      That was so beautifully written. Thank you for this

    6. whatsupduck says:

      Is our foreign friend able to survive our winter? I’m concerned for his well being as we head into frigid temps.

    7. jezbel says:

      I’ve been wondering why the good folks at the Wild Bird Fund haven’t attempted to figure out the source of the Mandarin’s leg band. Perhaps someone is missing a duck. Or perhaps they’re know if the duck is capable of flying south for the winter. Has anyone observed it’s behavior? Does it mingle with the other ducks. Is there a chance it could produce offspring? Would there be a Mandarin-Canada goose hybrid (are the others Canada geese?) So many questions.

      • Sprinkles says:

        WBF does not intervene with a healthy bird. This Mandarin has pretty much “gone feral” and is thriving that way, so he will be left alone to avoid stressing him out with unnecessary handling.

    8. Annie B says:

      Love that this beautiful duck is, at least for now, calling magnificent Central Park his home…& the simple pleasure he is giving New Yorkers. 💕

    9. Christine E says:

      He’s real, and he’s spectacular!

    10. Quack says:

      Hot duck

    11. Anonymouse says:

      Amazing how one little duck brought joy to thousands of people near and far. So I’ve named him Mao Zeduck. Sorry but he’s a the people’s leader.