From a quick glance of a female Mandarin duck, it's pretty tough to identify that it is indeed the same species as the male Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata). The male Mandarin duck is one of nature’s greatest works of art - he’s adorned in rich multi-coloured plumage. Contrastingly, you’d have to say that the female is rather dull!
The difference between female and male Mandarin ducks is a textbook example of sexual dimorphism. Sexual dimorphism refers to when either the male or female is markedly different in shape, size, colour and form than the opposite sex.
This is the complete guide to female Mandarin ducks and how you can easily distinguish them from males, along with some behavioural differences.
A female mandarin duck, swimming on the lake
Identifying male Mandarin ducks is extremely easy - they’re one of the most eccentric-looking birds in the world! The male is bright and colourful with shades of green, blue, purple and metallic copper, with bright orange wings and a distinctive head crest. The male also has two pronounced orange ‘sails’ at its flanks.
Males have a taller, more upright posture and their skeleton is shaped slightly differently than the females’. Male Mandarin ducks are entirely different to females, except when they undergo a moult at the end of the breeding season and go into their ‘eclipse plumage’. Believe it or not, Mandarin ducks in their ‘eclipse plumage’ don’t look too dissimilar to females!
Contrastingly, female Mandarin ducks have a spotted white and brown breast and white underside with brown-grey upper feathers, a white stripe across the eye and a small blue-green stripe on the flank. They’re less upright and are slightly smaller than males too.
Female mandarin duck
Male mandarin duck
Male and female Mandarin ducks do look similar for a period at the end of the breeding season. The male moults much of his colourful plumage away - you might even be lucky enough to find some of his beautiful feathers on the ground if you go somewhere where Mandarin ducks are breeding.
After moulting, the male looks similar to the female, except for his bill, feet and head crest. This duller plumage, called eclipse plumage, can last a month or so at the end of summer. Unfortunately, this also makes juvenile Mandarin ducks harder to identify, as they look similar to both the females and the eclipsed males!
A male mandarin duck in eclipse plumage
Female Mandarin ducks are a brown-grey colour, with brown backs, mottled flanks, a spotted white and brown breast and white undersides and a distinctive white stripe across the eye. The bills are also a slightly different shape, and their legs are pale. They also have a blue-green stripe on their flank, similar to Mallards.
The female is shorter and squatter with a more oval-shaped head than the male. Like the male, they do have head crests that protrude from the back of the head, but these are shorter and are a brown-grey colour.
Mistaking a female Mandarin duck for a male is out of the question, except at the end of the breeding season when the male ducks moult most of their colourful plumage. This moulted plumage is called ‘eclipse plumage’.
Female Mandarin ducks do, however, look fairly similar to female wood ducks.
Close up of a female mandarin duck (Aix galericulata)
There is some conflicting information concerning whether female mandarin ducks are larger than males. Some sources seem to cite that the females are larger than the males, but one reputable source suggests that males weigh within the region of 571 to 693g, whereas females weigh a lesser 428 to 608g.
From side-by-side comparisons, it looks like the male is bigger than the female, which would make sense given their other male-dominant sexually dimorphic traits. In any case, the male certainly looks bolder and more imposing, courtesy of his more upright posture, pronounced crest, brighter feet and feathered sails.
A pair of mandarin ducks feeding together
Mandarin ducks differ from many species of ducks as they're typically unsociable and prefer to be isolated away from large flocks. They're also monogamous for the breeding season at least, which is uncommon amongst ducks.
In Korea, China and Japan, Mandarin ducks have strong symbolism and are associated with peace, love and marriage. They have a rich history in folklore dating back to Ancient China and Japan and frequently feature in Chinese art. A Chinese proverb refers to couples as "Two mandarin ducks playing in water", and in Cantonese, couples are compared to Mandarin ducks as an "odd couple" or "unlikely pair," which references their pronounced sexual dimorphism.
Despite being symbols of fidelity, couples of Mandarin ducks often 'divorce' at the end of the breeding season, and it's unclear whether they reunite with the same partners! However, notwithstanding divorce at the end of the breeding season, Mandarin ducks form strong pair bonds with fierce pair loyalty.
Female mandarin duck (left) and male mandarin duck (right) perched
Mandarin ducks are relatively quiet, and you won’t see them quacking away like other ducks. Their calls are subtle and gentle, especially contrasted against Mallards and other noisy waterfowl. However, the male does have a specific whistling and snorting call, which is usually reserved for the mating season. The female has a subtle ‘ket’ call which sounds somewhat similar to a coot.
After mating, the female alone incubates the eggs for some 30 days, longer in the Northern Hemisphere. The male often leaves before the eggs hatch and doesn’t take part in rearing the chicks. While this seems somewhat at odds with the Mandarin duck’s symbolism, this is typical behaviour amongst ducks in general.
With that said, there have been some observed cases of the male incubating the eggs while the female was away, and males do occasionally tend to the female during incubation.
Males are also defensive of the female during the breeding season and either fight off intruders or warn the female of danger. It’s important to highlight that Mandarin duck bonds are strong - studies have revealed that promiscuity and forced copulation are very rare, which contrasts with the behaviour of other ducks.
A female mandarin duck, swimming with her chicks
Mandarin duck couples are often described as playful, and their pair bonds are strong. During the breeding season, paired couples will often isolate themselves from flocks and chase away intruders.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.
© 2023 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.