6 Conspicuous Facts About Mandarin Ducks

Male mandarin ducks use their colorful feathers to attract mates. Christian Musat/Shutterstock

There are any number of birds out there with beautiful plumage, but many pale in comparison to the male mandarin duck.

The bird has a red bill, a purple breast, a crest of black, green, blue and copper and golden-orange wings. Basically, male mandarin ducks are an array of beautiful colors that you can't help but notice.

But there's more to this species than just flashy feathers. Mandarin ducks, or Aix galericulata, have a complex courting ritual and are symbols of love in some cultures, even though the males aren't the best dads in the world.

1. Female Mandarin Ducks Lack the Males' Colorful Appearance

Whereas the male mandarin ducks stand out in the wild, females look more like run-of-the-mill ducks, particularly female North American wood ducks (Aix sponsa), a close relative of the mandarin duck. Female mandarin ducks have a white ring around their eyes with a stripe running from the eye ring. Gray- or cream-colored feathers cover their bodies with the bills to match.

A female and male mandarin ducks stand on a branch
The difference between female (right) and male mandarin ducks is stark. RonPorter/Wikimedia Commons

2. During Their Molting Period, Males Resemble Female Mandarin Ducks

During the summer, when males shed their old feathers, they resemble females, Often the only way to tell them apart is to look at their bills. The males will retain the red bill that females lack.

3. Mandarin Ducks Hail From East Asia

These ducks are native to China, Japan, Korea and eastern Russia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Habitation destruction has reduced the ducks' population, with fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs in China and Russia. Japan boasts around 5,000 pairs. The IUCN categorizes the species as being of "Least Concern" due to its large range despite a decline in its population.

4. The Size of Their Range Has Increased, Albeit It Not Naturally

One additional reason for the birds' categorization is that the bird has thrived outside its native range. Because of their beautiful colors, the ducks were imported to England in the mid-18th century, but they didn't begin to breed in the wild until the 1930s after the ducks escaped from private grounds. Today, around 2,300 breeding pairs call the country home.

The birds are also found in the United States. Counties in both North Carolina and California have small populations, and a single male was spotted in New York City's Central Park in October 2018, though no one knows how he got there.

5. Mandarin Ducks Are Symbols of Love and Fidelity in China, Japan and Korea

Nineteenth century Japanese illustration of mandarin ducks
Mandarin ducks are popular subjects in East Asian art. Keiga Kawahara/Wikimedia Commons

All three countries use the mandarin duck as a symbol of devoted couples, spurred by a false belief that mandarin ducks mate for life. Figurines of the ducks are given as gifts to newlyweds, and representations of the ducks are used as feng shui cure for those seeking love.

6. Male Mandarin Ducks Are Horrible Dads

Regrettably, like many ducks, mandarin ducks don't really mate for life. Instead, males will leave once the ducklings hatch, leaving the female duck to care for the nine to 12 ducklings on her own. While this happening, the males are off growing new feathers for the next mating season.