Few other birds don such a dramatic and colorful costume for breeding as the male Mandarin Duck! Some say these ducks are showy and gaudy, but I think they are gorgeous! Mandarin Ducks are relatives of another beautiful duck, the Wood duck. Both ducks are perching ducks and are likely hide their beauty in dark wooded areas, along streams. You can imagine my delight in find both species in the same place, and not in a zoo!
Mandarin and Wood ducks are the only ducks that have silver-white on the leading edge of their flight feathers. The male Mandarin Duck has an overall “golden” appearance. He sports a long blue, green and copper crest which droops down his neck. A white area of feathers curve around his dark eyes, and tapers to a thin line at the tip of his crest. The rest of his face has buffy-orange feathers which extend down into the orange-gold feathers which form a mane around his neck. These feathers are shorter under his chin and longer at the back of his neck. He has mainly olive-brown feathers on his upperparts and tail. You can see a shimmer of iridescent blue on his back and side feathers. Unusual orange-gold central wings stick up about 2” from his back and form “sails” when he is sitting or swimming. He breast is purple. Two white vertical bars are behind his breast bordering his barred buff-colored flanks. His underparts are white with gold and black. He has a red bill with a pink or white tip, yellow feet and legs. When he is not breeding, during June-September, there is less white on his face and less spotting below. During molting the male looks like the female, but still has a red bill. Mandarin Ducks have larger eyes than any other waterfowl in relation to their bodies. This helps them to be able to navigate through the trees of their habitat.
The female Mandarin Duck is a lot like the female Wood Duck, but she is lighter and has more gray on her body. She has with a white eye ring, with the tail of the ring tapering off towards her neck. Her breast and sides are buff and gray with white spots. Her under parts are white. She does not have “sail feathers” like the male. She has a metallic blue speculum and several white stripes on her secondary wing feathers. Her bill is brown with a pink or yellow base. It is square at the base rather than coming to a point like the female Wood Duck. Her legs and feet are yellowish.
Ducklings look similar to Wood Duck or Mallard ducklings, but their eye stripe stops at the eye instead of going all the way to the bill. Juveniles look like the female but the young males have a pinkish bill.
Range and Habitat
Mandarin Ducks are found in southeast Russia, China, Japan, and Korea. They were introduced into Britain and exported to many other countries. The largest populations are in Japan and Britain. Ducks found in North America are usually escapees from collections or feral ducks in small numbers. There is a small colony of Mandarin Ducks in northern California. Their habitat is marshes, streams, and pools in wooded areas. They are partial migrators, migrating in early September.
Mandarin Ducks have lots of personality! According to one source, they can be both spirited and comic. Mandarin Ducks eat dragonflies, worms, grasshoppers, small fish, frogs, mollusks, small snakes, invertebrates, grains, and seeds of wild grapes. They particularly like acorns. In China, they even fly into the trees and pick the acorns right off of the trees! They dab for food in the water and walk on land. They are very agile in trees, where they walk around and perch. They feed early in the day, and at night. In proportion to their size they have large wings. This enables them to lift quickly off of the water in times of danger. The large wings also give them the ability to fly swiftly through the trees. The male has a nasal whistling, a bark, and a grunting sound. The female has a soft call. Mandarin Ducks will form small flocks in the winter; however, they generally stay in breeding pairs. They do not usually associate with other ducks except Wood Ducks. The showy crest is raised when the male is agitated or during display. The hen rarely displays her crest. During the summer molt, the males stay well hidden; their loss of color helps to camouflage them. The female molt is slower and continues until her offspring are ready to fly.
Breeding and Nesting
Mandarin Ducks are sexually mature at one year. They fly in pairs to the spring nesting grounds, where they have an aggressive courtship and mate in the water. Their displays during courtship involve much shaking, drinking, bill dipping, whistling, loud barks, and preening. The male will strut, puff, huff, and fight with other males. He is in “full sail” with his orange-gold wings and his crest is raised. The female will head pump and lay prone on the water in invitation. The male makes dipping movements before mounting her and then swims away afterwards. If the same pair is alive through two seasons, they usually pair up again.
After arriving at the nesting grounds, the male goes with the female while she chooses the nesting site. She might nest in the same tree cavity year after year. They look for a nesting site near a stream in order to provide insects for the ducklings after they hatch. Since they do not bring nesting material, they look for a cavity with leaves or wood chips inside. The female lays 8-10 eggs over a period of 6-7 days but will not start incubating until all of the eggs are laid. This way all of the eggs will hatch the same day. She pulls out her breast feathers to cover her eggs and keep them warm. The female does all of the incubating; the male stays nearby and waits for her to leave the nest to rest or feed. Incubation lasts for about 30 days. Sometimes the female will serve as a decoy to keep predators away from the nest, often feigning injury to detract a predator.
After the ducklings hatch, they have only a short time in the nest before the female calls to them from the ground. The ducklings have sharp claws to help them climb out of the nest cavity, which can be anywhere from 2-6 feet deep. After reaching the opening of the cavity, the ducklings will jump, sometimes as much as 30 feet, to the ground to join the female. The male remains with the female and his offspring for the first week or two after the ducklings hatch. Even though both parents are diligent in guarding their offspring, half of the ducklings will not survive the first year. The young are able to fly by August, in time for the September migration.