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Thursday, March 10, 2005


Mandarin duck

* Japanese name: Oshidori
* Scientific name: Aix galericulata
* Description: The male Mandarin duck is the last word in avian cuteness. With a wingspan of 68-74 cm, and a body that's 41-49 cm long, he has highly elaborate plumage, with long orange feathers on the "cheeks" of his face, swished-back head feathers of green and brown, a red bill and orange "sails" on his back. The female is subtle in comparison, with white rings around the eyes, a gray head and brown back. Both sexes have a blue-green iridescent patch on the wings that can be seen when they are in flight.
* Where to find them: Lakes and ponds that are well fringed with woodland or bushes and trees. The pond in the grounds of Meiji Shrine in Harajuku has Mandarin ducks, for example. Mandarins nest in trees, or in holes in fallen or hollow trunks. Environmental destruction has hit Mandarins hard, though the reportedly unpleasant taste of their flesh has meant that they have at least not been hunted for food.
* Food: Insects, vegetation and nuts and seeds, including rice. They will even accept food thrown by women holding Louis Vuitton handbags.
* Special features: With such elaborate plumage, you would be correct in thinking that the Mandarin duck's courtship is also elaborate. The male, while whistling to the female (he rarely makes noises at other times) pretends to drink and shakes his body -- it's similar to human mating behavior in a nightclub. Males have to spend a long time getting ready, too. Fourteen percent of their time is spent maintaining that ornate plumage, and most of that time is spent preening the feathers. A well groomed appearance is a message to females: Males with the most beautiful plumage are the ones able to devote the most energy to keeping it clean and growing it, and are also likely to be the best ones to mate with. Once he has mated, the male doesn't help incubate the eggs, but despite this, Mandarin ducks are symbolic of happiness and marital fidelity in their native lands of Japan and China. A population of around 7,000 is well established in Britain, where there was a vacant ecological niche for a hole-nesting duck feeding on insects in the summer and vegetable matter in the winter.

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