Aviculturists desiring to keep ducks are fortunate in that two of the world’s most brilliantly-colored species, the Mandarin Duck (Aix graiculata) and the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa), are small, hardy and have long been bred in captivity. Despite occupying opposite ends of the globe, their natural histories and captive care are very similar. While the decision to keep aquatic birds should not be made lightly, either of these little beauties makes an excellent “first duck” for those with the means to provide for them.
I lack the words to properly describe the colors of male Wood or Mandarin Ducks – please see the attached photos.
Natural Range and Historical Significance
The Mandarin Duck hails from East Asia, and may be found from Russia’s Amur River south through Korea and Eastern China to Japan and Taiwan. Introduced populations have become established (usually, much to local residents’ delight!) in several European countries, California and elsewhere.
Mandarin Ducks have long been regarded as symbols of fidelity and kindness by people living within their range. This is particularly true in Eastern China, where at one time a pair of caged Mandarin Ducks was a standard part of most wedding processions. Art historians tell us that the colors and pattern of the plumage of the drake (male) has had, and continues to have, a strong influence on several Chinese art forms.
The Wood Duck is native the Eastern Canada and much of the Eastern and Central USA and also occurs along the west coast from southern British Columbia to Central California . It is a gorgeous bird – males usually shock novice birders with their colorful, “exotic” plumage.
Habitat and Reproduction
Both species have the rather “un-duck-like” habits of frequenting quiet woodland streams and ponds as opposed to rivers and lakes, and of nesting high above the ground in tree hollows (most ducks nest on the ground). Dead trees in standing water are preferred, but tree cavities in densely forested areas quite distant from water may be utilized as well. A lack of suitable nesting hollows nearly doomed the Wood Duck to extinction, but a massive nest box installation program, along with increased habitat protection, has now returned many populations to solid footing.
I’ve always found wild Wood Ducks to be somewhat shy and retiring, and so was pleasantly surprised when a pair took up residence in an outdoor frog and turtle pond that I maintained on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, where I worked for many years. Others have reported Wood Ducks nesting in boxes placed a mere 6 feet above the surface of quiet backyard ponds (wild pairs usually choose sites high above the ground).
Mandarin and Wood Ducks feed upon aquatic vegetation, seeds, insects, snails and other invertebrates, tadpoles and small fishes. Birders are often surprised to come upon them foraging in the middle of oak forests – it seems that acorns are a much-favored food.
Please see this article for interesting observations on feral Mandarin Ducks in California and a video of ducklings leaping from their nest hollow.
The Game Bird Gazette lists Mandarin and Wood Duck breeders and is a good source of additional captive care information.