Bird of the Orient

Introduced from the Far East by 18th-century collectors, mandarin ducks are surely the brightest jewels of our waterways

Mandarin duck

Conor Jameson

Posted on 14/06/2019

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Waterways can often feel like routes into a hidden world. I had this sense very strongly one sunny afternoon, as I explored a tributary of the River Cam by canoe. It was the height of summer, and the banks were thick with overhanging vegetation. At times it felt like being in a tunnel: an underworld. Most unforgettable was the surreal, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment I experienced as I rounded a tight bend in the river and encountered the most exquisite, exotic looking bird, sitting quietly on a small wooden door floating on the water – perhaps a relic from a winter flood. The bird looked a bit like a little Chinese dragon, all vivid colours and an elegant mane of feathers. It was unmistakably a drake mandarin duck.

The mandarin could rightly claim to being the most beautifully plumaged bird in the UK. Indeed it is widely believed to be the world’s most attractive duck. From the white-ringed eye, with its delicate ‘eyelash’, crest and whiskers, to the elongated feathers, it is ornate from bill to tail.

An exotic ornament

The bird is a native of China, Japan and east Asia, first introduced to Britain in the 18th century by collectors keen to adorn their wildfowl ponds and lakes with exotic species. Despite its finery and small size, it is a remarkably resilient bird, and has, like so many other introduced species, gone native. Today there are almost 10,000 pairs in the UK.

While mandarins are known to be shy and elusive, they’re frequently spotted in public parks, looking for easy pickings with other ducks. I recently stumbled across a pair by the river in central Cambridge one early morning; perhaps as they were prospecting for nest sites. They seemed a little skittish, and flew off as I approached. More recently, I saw a drake mandarin loafing on a log, a little further out of town. He seemed perfectly relaxed; in fact he joined the mallards when some children appeared at the water’s edge with a bag of tit-bits. Although small, mandarins are pretty tough, too. I’ve watched them more than holding their own with other waterfowl in a tight space.

Surprising tree dwellers

Mandarins are unusual among duck species in their affinity with trees, in which they are very happy to perch on high branches, as well as nesting in tree holes. Their fondness for tree-holes may help them safely hatch large clutches of eggs, but it presents some challenges for the ducklings when they attempt to follow their parents to the nearest body of water. Happily, they are as intrepid as they are cute, and are more than capable of parachuting from considerable heights.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with the man who is perhaps the world authority on the mandarin – Sir Christopher Lever. He is author of the definitive work on the bird, The Mandarin Duck, published by Poyser among their famous series of ornithological titles. Christopher is especially interested in non-native and naturalised species, and the history of humanity’s movement of birdlife around the world. It is a history that has sometimes had unfortunate consequences for native wildlife, and other times with relatively benign outcomes, such as with the mandarin. It was an encounter with a mandarin back in the 1950s that first inspired Sir Lever’s lifelong passion. This bird can have that sort of effect on you. See mandarins and other waterfowl in a region near you.

NORTH WEST

In this region you can see mandarins on the ponds and lakes at Reddish Vale Country Park near Stockport, and Etherow Country Park near Romiley. They’ve also been spotted on the boating lake at Heaton Park. In 2016, wood ducks were seen on Ashton Canal in Manchester – this North American waterfowl is the only closely related species to mandarins; similarly elegant if a little less rainbow coloured. It has not naturalised to the UK as readily as the mandarin, but shares many of its habits, and its fondness for trees.

NORTH EAST

According to Jonathan Hart-Woods, senior ecologist for the Trust in Yorkshire and the north east, “Mandarins seem to be attracted to canals that have lots of tree-lined embankments. The Leeds & Liverpool and Calder & Hebble Navigation are particularly ideal.”

You’ll also find mandarins among swans and coots and other waterfowl along the Pocklington Canal and on Southfield Reservoir, which adjoins Went Ings SSSI – a site renowned for its winter bird gatherings and abundance of birdlife all year round.

EAST MIDLANDS

Wollaton Park in Nottingham has a pair of mandarins attempting to breed. Penny Foster, another ecologist for the Trust, has also seen wood ducks on the Grand Union Canal at Gayton junction: “Most likely escapees from a collection but striking none the less!”

WEST MIDLANDS

A pair of mandarins has been seen on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, and another on the Shropshire Union Canal. Flocks of up to 40 of the birds have been known to descend on ponds in the area, and this is most likely to happen in winter, when the birds move around looking for food and shelter in more uncertain weather.

LONDON AND SOUTH EAST

I’ve heard a lovely story about someone who witnessed a pair of mandarins successfully hatch a brood of ducklings from a tree hole along the Grand Union, which was used that same season by a pair of tawny owls and a pair of stock doves – successively, I should add, not at the same time!

According to Imogen Wilde, ecologist for the Trust in the south east, “We have lots of mandarins in Epping Forest – they often startle me by peeking out of cavities way up high in the oak trees when I’m surveying for beetles.”

SOUTH WEST

You’ve got a high chance of seeing mandarins along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. You might even see a narrowboat named after them!

Did you know?

Mandarin ducks are symbols of fidelity and enduring love in Buddhism and other religions and cultures. This arises from their apparent devotion to each other; their mutual preening, and the way they often stand side-by-side, close together, for warmth and security. The birds, and symbols of them, have historically been given to newlyweds.

A few tips for feeding waterfowl

Although bread isn’t harmful to birds, try not to offer it in large quantities, since its nutritional value is relatively low and left lying around it could grow harmful mould or attract less welcome guests. A bird that is on a diet of predominantly, or only bread, can suffer from serious vitamin deficiencies, or starve. Consider healthier alternatives when feeding the ducks, such as porridge oats, frozen peas or sweetcorn, seeds and fruit.

Fred F