The Mandarin Duck breeds in a tree hollow and can be found in forest ponds or rivers throughout the year. In spring and summer they prefer to live in mountain areas, but during fall and winter they can be seen in lowland areas, except in Hokkaido, where they are just summer visitors. The male’s plumage becomes bright and colorful earlier than males of other duck species, as they begin their courtship ritual in the fall.
Play birds singing
When looking at a male duck in summer, no one would know he was a Mandarin Duck. That’s because unlike the bright and colorful plumage he sports during the winter, his plumage is now the same dull coloring as the female. Among small birds, the male attracts a mate with love songs and couples with her in spring. Among ducks, however, the male tries to attract a female with a courtship dance in winter.
To that end, the male starts to change his coat during fall and it gradually becomes bright and colorful. That’s why ducks arriving from Russia in fall are at first often mistaken as all female. (Unlike other ducks, however, the plumage of the male Eastern Spot-billed Duck does not change.)
Since the Mandarin Duck begins its courtship ritual a little earlier than other ducks do, in fall, when it can also be seen in the lowlands, the male has already changed the color of its plumage for courtship. When cold weather begins, the colorful male and dull-colored female pair up as the easily identifiable “love duck.” In Japan, Mandarin Ducks are a symbol of love and marriage, and in the Japanese language, an affectionate couple is called “oshidorifufu,” a combination of the words for Mandarin Duck (oshidori) and couple (fufu).
Although many bird species are monogamous, it is very difficult for birds to maintain life-long partnerships since, as explained in the profile of the Barn Swallow they face many natural predators, resulting in a low survival rate. Also, among ducks and pheasants females are solely responsible for raising their young. Ducklings are “precocial,” which means they are capable of a high degree of independent activity from birth. Since they can walk on their own and feed themselves right after birth, the protection of the father is unnecessary, and they do not have any trouble in foraging for food.
The male’s plumage returns to its dull coloring again after it separates from the female in the spring to early summer. If he can survive until the next breeding season, he will change to colorful plumage yet again and try to attract a mate. Even if his previous partner also survives, it is unlikely that the two would couple again. When people learn that the male has a different partner each year, some feel sorry for him but others are envious.
The key to telling the male from the female in the summer is the color of the bill. As shown in the photo, in the summer the male has the same dull-colored plumage as the female, but it has a pink bill throughout the year.
The Mandarin Duck likes trees and woods more than other ducks and it often rests on a branch during the day, although many duck species tend to be nocturnal.