National Geographic : 2015 Mar
PHOTOS: JOEL SARTORE The mandarin drake “possesses an amazing and bizarre plumage which makes him one of the most beautiful and striking ducks— indeed one of the most beautiful birds—in the world.” So says Christo- pher Lever, an eminent British conservationist and one of the world’s leading authorities on mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata). His statement begs a footnote. A mandarin drake hoping to mate is definitely a looker—but after he’s achieved that goal? Not so much. In Europe drakes sport what Lever calls “full breeding finery” in fall: green-and-copper head, purple breast, rust-colored ruff, orange-gold wings. Through the winter the courting male will preen, shake, and flash those feathers to entice the duller-hued female to mate. By April or May the connubial deed is done, and the duck lays 9 to 12 eggs. The drake stays nearby for the 28- to 33-day incubation. But once ducklings hatch, females must rear them alone, while males adjourn to a summer-long molting party. Dropping their come-hither feathers leaves drakes in what’s called “eclipse plumage” (right). Having also shed their primary wing feathers, they’re temporarily flightless, so their drab looks serve as helpful camouflage from would-be predators. As fall returns, the ugly-duck phase passes. Drakes suit up once more in nuptial plumage and go looking for love. —Patricia Edmonds HABITAT Native to East Asia, intro- duced in Europe and the U.S. STATUS Least concern OTHER FACTS Mandarins, which usually mate long-term or for life, are symbols of fidelity and marital bliss in Japan and China. Looking Hot, Then Not A genteel disquisition on love and lust in the animal kingdom Basic Instincts The mandarin drake in breeding plumage was photographed in a private collection; the molted mandarin drake (top) was photographed at Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Scotland Neck, North Carolina.