A native of Japan and China, the mandarin duck was first introduced into the UK in the 18th century and started populations in the wild in the 1930’s following escapes from captivity. The UK population is estimated to be in the region of 7,000 birds.
The adult male mandarin duck is renowned for his remarkable breeding plumage including bushy orange side whiskers and an elongated orange tertial (wing) feather, which sticks up in a pronounced sail shape. Crown and forehead are a greenish purple, cheeks are buff coloured and the side of the head is white. The back of the neck and extended nape morph to a copper and white crest. The ruff on the side of the neck is pale brown/ chestnut and the shoulders are shiny blue with white and black markings. The back and the mantle (below the nape) are olive brown and aside from the orange ‘sail’, tertials are a blue. On the underparts the lower breast to the undertail coverts are white flanked with black, white and orange and the upper breast is reddish purple. The tail is brown with a green sheen and long dark blue-green uppertail coverts. The colour and patternation of the breeding plumage of the mandarin drake make it unmistakable. The beak is predominantly red in colour, of medium length and typically ‘duck like’ but with a pale pink protrusion at the tip of the upper mandible often referred to as a ‘nail’. Eyes are brown with a yellow outer ring and legs and webbed feet a pale brown orange.
Adult females’ upperparts are a dark grey brown with pale grey brown mottling on the flanks, a grey head and a greyish rear facing crest on the head much shorter than the male’s crest. Underparts are white. Most noticeably they have a white circle around the eye which extends back towards the neck giving the appearance of spectacles and a further white line around the pinky brown beak passing beneath the chin. Legs and feet are yellow.
In ‘eclipse plumage the drake closely resembles the appearance of the female but without a crest and with a red orange beak. Eclipse plumage is typical of ducks and can be described as dull, uninteresting female-like plumage worn by the male during the summer following breeding. It therefore “eclipses” his usual bright plumage. Juvenile ducklings are similar to the female but less mottled, with a grey coloured beak and very feint white face markings.
Male Mandarin Duck
Female Mandarin Duck
Although both males and females are relatively quiet and don’t ‘quack’ the male has a call normally reserved for the mating season or when he is alarmed which consists of a short rising whistling sound accompanied at the same time by a lower pitched snorting. Females call with a single loud ‘ket’ not dissimilar to that of a coot or a rapidly much repeated clucking sound similar to ‘akk – akk’.
Mandarin Duck call
Bodo Sonnenburg, XC628604. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/628604.
Mandarin Duck in flight
Mandarins feed on a diet of aquatic plants, insects, tadpoles, snails, fish, seeds and nuts. They seldom dive preferring to dip their heads under the water or ‘upending’.
The majority of the species is to be found in the central, eastern and southern regions of England with limited numbers occurring in northern England, Scotland and Wales. They prefer smaller lakes or ponds with overhanging branches and foliage.
A male and female Mandarin Duck
The mandarin duck is one of only a few species that perch in trees. During the breeding season, males are easily identified although females alone are far more difficult to identify unless accompanied by their exotically bedecked mate. Feeding normally takes place during the early morning and evening when they can be found either foraging at the waters edge, particularly below overhanging trees or from the water’s surface.
Two Mandarin Ducks
Very occasionally a nest will be built in thick ground vegetation but far more common is the use of tree hollows, woodpecker nests or evening nesting boxes close to water. One clutch of between 7 – 14 eggs is laid in late April or May and incubated by the female for up to thirty three days. Fledging takes place some forty to forty five days later with the drake taking no part in the care and feeding of the young.
Female Mandarin Duck with chicks
Juvenile Mandarin Duck
Nests are usually built up to ten metres above the ground and can reach heights of fifteen metres. When the young fledge the mother calls to them from outside the nest and they clamber from the nest and plummet to the ground following which they make their way to the water.
The life expectancy of mandarins is around ten years although captive birds have been recorded reaching fifteen years of age.
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