Male Mandarin Ducks Are Flashy Suitors But Poor Fathers

Females are left to rear ducklings while males get together for a molting party.

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 Christopher 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. (See National Geographic's backyard bird identifier.)

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. (See "Beyond Testicles and Dads: 5 Legit Studies of Male 'Gear.'")

View Images

A male Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) in full molt at Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park in North Carolina.

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. (Watch a video of day-old Mandarin ducklings following their mother’s lead and diving from their nest.)

Dropping their come-hither feathers leaves drakes in what's called "eclipse plumage." 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.