The Mandarin duck was minding his own business on a pond in New York’s Central Park when, with the snap of a few viral pictures, he became a celebrity.
The rare duck, a colorful creature native to East Asia who mysteriously appeared on the water last month, was like a zebra among horses, stealing the show with his ruffled auburn sideburns, purple breast and iridescent-looking crown. Hundreds flocked to the park with cameras around their necks to catch a glimpse of him, standing in lines that wrapped around the pond as if he were the star of a well-organized meet-and-greet.
The curious onlookers kept coming for days — until Monday, when nobody could find him.
He wasn’t there on Tuesday either. So when David Barrett, the creator and manager of the Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert, reported early Wednesday that “our MANDARIN DUCK” had gone missing, a frenzy ensued.
It was like New Yorkers had lost a collective pet.
“We lost an attorney general today, but somehow the missing duck became a top story on Twitter,” said Barrett, author of “A Big Manhattan Year: Tales of Competitive Birding.” “Non-birders are going crazy about it.”
Theories emerged. Some feared the Mandarin duck had been stolen. Others feared worse: that he had been eaten. Some even wondered whether Russians had kidnapped him or, inevitably, he had been deported.
“Justice for the Central Park mandarin duck,” one New Yorker demanded on Twitter.
“Setting up an automatic email reply for self care until i hear news confirming the mandarin duck is safe,” lamented another.
“Crushed to hear the #MandarinDuck has disappeared,” said another.
The level of concern for the Mandarin duck has intrigued Barrett, who said he has been “immensely surprised” at the duck’s celebrity as it can be difficult to interest people in bird watching.
But Barrett said there is most likely a very rational explanation for the duck’s disappearance. He said he is not concerned that the duck is eaten or in danger. The duck was “getting along” with the other regular ducks, appeared healthy and, Barrett said, most obviously, can fly.
He probably just went somewhere else.
“I don’t think anything nefarious happened,” Barrett said. “Ducks are ducks. They like to fly — they like to move around to find an environment they like better, to find some food it prefers. And we don’t think someone would have taken it, because it can be very hard to do that. They’re not easy to catch.”
The New York City Parks Department agreed. “While we’re happy to have had him visit our parks, it’s important to remember that at some point he may leave New York for warmer temperatures,” the department said in a statement to CBS New York.
Since he was first spotted near the Pond in Central Park on Oct. 10, the Mandarin duck has been seen at different bodies of water around the city. One instance had him in the Hudson River near a Manhattan boat basin on Oct. 25. A few days later, he returned to his usual spot in the Pond.
The fascination with the Mandarin duck, Barrett said, appeared to arise out of the mystery of its appearance in the first place — the curiosity over where it had come from.
Barrett and other birders do not believe the Mandarin duck is wild, nor that he migrated to Central Park from East Asia. That is clear, Barrett said, because he has a band around his leg.
Birders believe the duck was raised in human captivity, he said. The birder community believes the duck’s owner either got tired of caring for it and released it in Central Park, or, more adventurously, that the Mandarin duck escaped.
Either way, both possibilities indicate that the Central Park Mandarin duck may not be well-practiced in typical duck migration patterns.
“In general, ducks are migratory. Wild ducks are,” Barrett said. “But this duck is domestic, and so it’s very likely he never had the chance to migrate.”
So, would he survive a New York winter? Matthew Dodder, a bird-watching instructor in California, said the duck would easily survive, as it is built to survive the cold winters of northern Japan.
Dodder said Mandarin ducks, which can sell between $150 and $300 per pair by breeders online, can thrive in a variety of habitats. He added that the Mandarin duck of Central Park is unlikely to migrate far south as other birds might.
“He’ll be OK,” Dodder said. “[Central Park] is a pretty safe place, if you’re not afraid of the people.”
Perhaps that was why the Mandarin duck left it.