8 Colorful Facts About Mandarin Ducks

mandarin duck with white, yellow, orange, blue, and green coloring swims in pond

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The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the world. This is because of its stunning plumage, which is made up of an array of colors that you can't help but notice.

But there's more to this species than just flashy feathers. Whether it's their complex courting ritual or their cultural significance, there's a lot to know about the mandarin duck. Here are some of the most interesting facts about this colorful creature.

1. Female Mandarin Ducks Lack the Males' Colorful Look

colorful male mandarin duck and gray female standing on edge of lake

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Mandarin ducks are known for their eye-catching look — their red bill; purple breast; crest of black, green, blue, and copper; and golden-orange wings. And yet, that trait is not universal for the species. As with many other bird species, only the males have this eye-dazzling appearance, while female mandarin ducks have less eye-catching coloring. They have gray- or cream-colored feathers with bills to match.

That doesn't mean female mandarin ducks have no identifying features, however. Their eyes stand out because of a white ring that encircles them and then extends to a stripe along the face.

2. Male Mandarin Ducks Resemble Females When Molting

side view of mandarin duck in eclipse plumage swimming with head reflected in water

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Like other waterfowl, the male mandarin duck molts its feathers after mating season. But it does not immediately return to its colorful glory. Instead, it molts into its eclipse plumage made up of brown and gray feathers, making it look like its female counterparts. Often, the only way to tell them apart at this time is to look at their bills — the males will retain the red beak that females lack.

In the fall, male mandarin ducks will molt again into their breeding plumage to prepare for the breeding season.

3. They Hail From East Asia, but Their Range Is Wide

Mandarin ducks are native to China, Japan, Korea, and eastern Russia, but habitat destruction has reduced the ducks' population in these areas. The good news is that the species can thrive outside of its native range. Populations can be found across Europe and in the United States. This wide range is why, despite the global population decreasing, the IUCN categorizes the mandarin duck as being of least concern.

4. Their Range Increase Did Not Happen Naturally

While the mandarin duck is widespread, this expansion did not happen naturally. The ducks were imported to England in the mid-18th century because of their beautiful colors. However, they didn't begin to breed in the wild until the 1930s after escaping from private grounds. As of the mid-1980s, the British population was estimated to be approximately 7,000 ducks.

Found in counties in North Carolina and California, the populations in the United States can likely be traced back to private collections. One male famously popped up in New York City's Central Park in October 2018, but no one knows how it arrived.

5. Mandarin Ducks Are Symbols of Love and Fidelity

Mandarin ducks are famous for being monogamous, meaning they mate for life. Because of this, the creature has become a symbol of love and fidelity for couples in China, Japan, and Korea. It's common for a pair of figurines of these ducks to be gifted to newlyweds, and they are often utilized as a feng shui cure to help maintain a healthy relationship.

There are references to the duck as far back as the beginnings of Buddhism; there is a legend in which a pair of mandarin ducks impress with their affection for one another. They appear in Japanese mythology and Confucianism as well.

6. They Have an Elaborate Courtship Ritual

While male mandarin ducks' colorful plumage helps them attract a mate, they still have to work for it. Like a number of other bird species, mandarin ducks perform a specialized courtship routine. The males shake, bob their heads, mock drink, and mock preen, all while raising their crest and orange "sail" feathers to show off. Despite being generally quiet creatures, they also incorporate sound into their courtship in the form of a whistling call.

7. Male Mandarin Ducks Are Absent Fathers

overhead view of mother mandarin duck resting with multiple fuzzy ducklings

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Despite being monogamous, mandarin duck pairs don't take on the duties of parenting equally. The male sticks around for the eggs' 28- to 33-day incubation period, but once they are hatched, he leaves. The mother mandarin is left to rear the nine to 12 ducklings on her own.

Meanwhile, the male mandarin ducks molt into their eclipse plumage and, eventually, back to its breeding plumage to prepare for the following breeding season.

8. Newborn Mandarin Ducks Are Daredevils

A mother mandarin duck lays her eggs in the hollow of a tree up to 30 feet from the ground, but after the ducklings hatch, they quickly need to get to water. The newborn creatures can't yet fly, but that doesn't stop them from finding their way to the ground. With the mother mandarin down below offering encouraging calls, each duckling takes a leap, launching itself out of the tree's hollow and free-falling to the ground. Grass and fallen leaves cushion its fall, and the baby mandarins emerge unharmed.

View Article Sources
  1. BirdLife International. “Aix galericulata.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2018, doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22680107A131911544.en

  2. Davies, A.K. “The Distribution and Status of the Mandarin Duck Aix Galericulata in Britain.” Bird Study, vol. 35, 1988, pp. 203-207., doi:10.1080/00063658809476990

  3. Lever, Christopher. The Mandarin Duck. Bloomsbury, 2013.

  4. Aix galericulata: Mandarin Duck.” University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.