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Mandarin Duck

Aix galericulata

by Rob Meneilly, The Dandenongs, Victoria

The mandarin duck is one of the most beautiful specimens of ornamental waterfowl. It is believed the name was bestowed upon it probably because the Chinese thought it possessed many of the fine attributes that they commonly expect to find in their mandarins. Not only does this waterfowl have spectacular plumage but it also possesses character in both sexes that is rarely found and so interesting and amusing.

The mandarin tends to mate for life; hence for this reason it was regarded as a symbol of conjugal devotion, which was why pairs were taken to Chinese weddings in bygone years. It has been said that mandarins do not desert their mates and there has been the occasion of a female accidentally separated from her mate and the drake refused to eat for days until, fortunately, she was found and restored to him, otherwise doubtless he would have died.

Mandarins survive extremely well in the cooler climates in the wild in Eastern Asia and they have established well as a feral bird in England, but not so in New Zealand or Tahiti. A pair was liberated at Macedon Reservoir in Victoria, in the 1800s but there appears to be no further record of these birds.

The mandarins appear to be closely related to the Carolina duck Aix sponsa and I have seen them together in collections in Thailand in the mid 1990s. It has been found to be extremely rare for the two species to interbreed and although the mandarin never crosses with any other species, not even the Carolina, the Carolina duck has been crossed with several species of the Anas group.

The drake’s beauty, complexity of colouring and patterns [which are well illustrated in the accompanying colour photo] not only has greatly influenced Chinese art from time immemorial, but it has become a most sought after waterfowl species for the avid enthusiast. However, in the middle to late 1960s, the breeding results in Victoria, or Australia for that matter, were extremely poor and great difficulty was experienced not only to rear what fortunes were had, but egg laying and fertility was also poor.

In 1970, I acquired two beautiful mandarin drakes from a dealer who happily exchanged them for some red-fronted kakariki parrots that I had. The mandarins were both pinioned and were extremely at ease in an enclosure each measuring 5 metres long x 1.2 metres wide, with a pond 900mm x 170mm deep.

The next step was to find a “DUCK”!

After some time I was fortunate to source a young “duck”. Consequently, the following season she tried to nest and lay but became eggbound. The egg broke internally but was successfully removed by a “VET” and she survived but never laid again.

After a number of years two ducks and one drake were sourced, but age I feel was against my birds and as does happen, the hens seemed to acquire drake plumage. It was thought at the time that this was due to the severe eclipse plumage moult taken over the past 8-9 years is what can cause this problem. Dr Danny Brown, in his book A Guide to Pheasants & Waterfowl, has found it is possibly more likely to be caused by ovarian adenocarcinomas.

Since those times, over 35 years ago, due to the perseverance of aviculturists and the knowledge gained regarding this beautiful species, the mandarin duck is in a strong position in Australian collections. It is quite readily bred and availability is nowhere near as difficult as it was back in the 1970s.

To house these birds obviously the bigger the better, but results can be achieved in a smaller enclosure. However, most enthusiasts are opting for the larger enclosure with a pond large enough to bathe and dabble in, as they adore fresh clean water even though they tend to spend a great deal of time, more often than not, out of the water. Enclosures nicely planted with adequate cover are essential as they become quite shy, especially if you are successful in breeding the mandarin.

In most cases birds acquired in Australia tend to be pinioned and, even if they aren’t, when breeding season is near - come September through December, place nestboxes with easy accessibility for the birds. In size they should be approximately 500-600mm long x 300mm square, with entrance approximately 100mm diameter in the end. Insulate under the roof unless a hollow log is used and position nest in shade either over or near the water. Place some wood shavings and/or sawdust inside, which the female will eventually line with down after she has completed laying her clutch of up to 12 eggs.

While incubating, which takes 28 to 30 days, it has been observed by one breeder that the male takes guard sitting in the entrance facing out. This also could aid to create and keep in the humidity assisted by the hen that returns to the nest after feed breaks with wet feathers. Hens, particularly in the first year, generally have poor fertility and brooding is not that good. Second year clutches have recently been proved to be successful, particularly in Victoria, which also has the advantage of a cooler climate.

The mandarins have also been found to be excellent parents and provide extra protection by using the broken-wing trick.

The ducklings grow quickly and the diet provided early in life was mealworms, duckweed and numerous other waterweeds, turkey starter and budgie seed mix.

Water movement is also fairly important, or it seems to be an added advantage as it creates stimulation for the ducklings, as the early stage of life is a critical period. A dripping tap can create the water movement. Later, as the ducklings grow, feeding seems to be mostly at night as mandarins are night feeders. Budgie seed mix, chick starter through to poultry grower crumbles, pellets or mash, or greenfeed such as endive, chopped lettuce or silverbeet, should be added as a supplement. You can eliminate the mealworms.

In conclusion, the mandarin duck is a very hardy and beautiful species of waterfowl, clean and easy to care for as long as care is taken not to have open top enclosures, as they are extremely vulnerable to hawk attack, and they can climb well. No direct sunlight, with adequate shade and shelter, and they are particularly partial to clean water.

Dr Danny Brown. 1998. A Guide to Pheasants & Waterfowl. ABK Publications, South Tweed Heads, New South Wales.

Gollop, K. 1981. Breeding the Mandarin Duck. Australian Aviculture.

Harman, I. 1970. The Mandarin Duck. Australian Aviculture..

JL Long. 1989. Introduced Birds of the World. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

A Rutgers &.KA Norris [Editors). 1970. Encyclopaedia of Aviculture, Vol.1 Blandford Press, London, England.

Fred Smith, Merricks, Victoria. Personal communication, 2003.

Swaenepoel, G. The Carolina Duck and the Mandarin Duck. Australian Aviculture.

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