The Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) is a medium-sized perching duck closely related to the North American Wood Duck. It is 41-49 cm long with a 65-75 cm wingspan.
Adult males are striking and unmistakable with their red bill, large white crescent above the eye and reddish face and “whiskers”. The breast is purple with two vertical white bars and the flanks ruddy with two orange “sails” at the back. The female is similar to the female Wood Duck, with a white eye-ring and stripe running back from the eye, but is paler below, has a small white flank stripe, and a pale tip to its bill.
Mandarin Ducks are frequently featured in Oriental art and are regarded as a symbol of marital affection and fidelity.
This species was once widespread throughout eastern Asia but is now endangered because of large-scale exports and the destruction of its forest habitat. It is thought that the populations in eastern Russia and in China are both well below 1,000 pairs, although Japan may have around 5,000 pairs.
Specimens frequently escape from collections, and in the 20th century a feral population numbering about 1,000 pairs was established in Great Britain. Although this of great conservational significance, the birds are not protected in the UK since the species is not native there.
In the wild, Mandarin Ducks breed in densely wooded areas near shallow lakes, marshes or ponds. Nests are constructed in tree cavities close to water. The Asian populations are migratory and spend winter in the lowlands of eastern China and southern Japan.
Mandarins feed by dabbling or walking on land, foraging mainly for plants and seeds, especially beechmast. They typically feed near dawn or dusk, perching in trees or on the ground during the day.
Mandarins may form small flocks in winter but rarely associate with other ducks.
A Chinese proverb for loving couples uses the Mandarin duck as a metaphor: “Two swimming mandarin ducks”. The Mandarin Duck symbol is also used in Chinese weddings.
The Mandarin was known and revered in Asia well before the birth of Christ. Westerners were quick to discover them when they began to visit that area of the world – captive Mandarins were brought to Europe as early as the 1700’s. The Mandarin is easy to care for and breed and is therefore commonly kept by private breeders, on game farms and in zoos.