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My hot take on Hot Duck. (Ok, maybe not much of a hot take, but he is a hot duck!).

January 4, 2019


mandarin - grahamc57

Mandarin duck, (c) GrahamC57 via Flickr

For the past couple of months, Central Park has been home to a mysterious stranger, known to some as Hot Duck. This Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is likely a domestic animal that was either released or escaped from somewhere, but his exact origins are unknown. He has, however, become a star in NYC – and rightly so, as these ducks are gorgeous. How can you not be instantly smitten with him? He has become a social media star, in large part due to the birding outreach efforts of David Barrett. If you live in NYC and are interested in birds, definitely check him out!

However, he is decidedly not a native New Yorker. Should we be worried that so much attention is given to him, and not the city’s native birds? As an urban ecologist, one of my primary objectives is to get city dwellers to learn more about, appreciate, and be inspired by the wildlife and nature all around them. I try to spread the message that urban wildlife is in no way inferior to the animals we find in Yellowstone National Park or Serengeti National Park. So what’s an urban ecologist to do when so much attention is suddenly placed on a non-native animal of probable domestic origins?

I say embrace it. With maybe a caveat or two.

In 2006 a group of researchers stated that perhaps we should think more kindly about common urban species, even including some that are not native (Dunn, Gavin, Sanchez, and Solomon, 2006). Pigeons, a.k.a. rock doves, are cited as a prime example of this. They’re non-native, even feral, but have a rather benign effect on urban ecosystems, and can even provide ecological value by, for example, becoming prey for some native raptors. And if you’ve ever actually taken a close look at one, you have to admit that they’re kind of beautiful in their own way. Do we want people’s love of wildlife and nature to end with pigeons? Probably not, but it’s not a bad place to start.

The caveat I mentioned earlier relates to potential damage that the presence of a non-native species can have on native wildlife. However, remember that just because a species isn’t native to an area, it doesn’t mean that it’s invasive! That’s an important distinction, and a common mistake. However, when a non-native species arrives, it’s always a good idea to investigate whether or not it is going to cause some upheaval in the local ecosystem.

One way this can happen is through hybridization – if two members of different species can breed, over time there can be a loss of genes. While many people think that the goal of conservation biology is to protect species, in fact we’re also concerned with protecting the evolutionary potential of species and populations – and that comes down to protecting genes. (Take a look back at two posts from 2017 for more on this).

mandarin - mike's birds on flickr

Mandarin duck, (c) Alex Groundwater via Flickr

Having said that, there is a school of thought that hybrids aren’t necessarily a bad thing, if they confer an advantage to a species that’s struggling under changing conditions. If, for example, a species is threatened due to the level of pollution found in its habitat, and if it hybridizes with a species that is much more tolerant of the pollution, then at least some of the threatened species’ genes will be carried on.

This is a complicated and rather controversial issue, and one that might be fun to explore in the future. But for now let’s get back to our Mandarin duck.

There’s a closely related species of native wood duck (Aix sponsa) that also lives in Central Park. Given that these two species are closely related, is hybridization a possibility? I did some web sleuthing, and although there is some confusion about this it appears that the answer is “no.” Although these two species are the only two found in the genus Aix, an article from 1959 discusses possible wood duck-Mandarin duck hybrids (Dilger and Johnsgard). Although they claim that the species can hybridize, they state that it appears this only happens in captivity, and furthermore – importantly – that the offspring are always sterile because of a mismatch in the number of chromosomes. So while Hot Duck might mate with a wood duck, and so prevent that particular bird from successfully breeding, it seems unlikely that this would have much of a negative impact on wood ducks in general especially because they themselves are not threatened. And in any case, the appearance of one duck in one population shouldn’t be much of a threat.

wood duck - frank vassen flickr

Wood duck, (c) Frank Vassen via Flickr

So what do you think? Should we encourage interest in a non-native species, if it gets the attention of people who normally wouldn’t notice or care much about native wildlife?

Side note: It turns out that our Hot Duck is not the only Mandarin duck star in North America. His popularity might be matched in Vancouver with a compatriot!


Dilger, W. C. and Johnsgard, P. A. 1959. Comments on Species Recognition with Special Reference to the Wood Duck and the Mandarin Duck. Papers in Ornithology, 11: 46-53.

Dunn, R. R., Gavin, M. C., Sanchez, M. C. and Solomon, J. N. 2006. The Pigeon Paradox: Dependence of global conservation on urban nature. Conservation Biology, 20(6): 1814-1816.

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