Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)

Our review of the January 1897 issue of Birds: A Monthly Serial continues with the third bird in the issue, the Mandarin Duck. The Mandarin Duck rivals the first bird we covered, the Nonpariel, as the series’s most colorful yet. What’s more, it is our first bird from outside the Americas – residing in East Asia, as its name suggests. Without further introduction, let us proceed to the Mandarin Duck content and see whether the article written for children in 1897 holds up well today, without some of the issues in the first two bird posts.

You can read the original Mandarin Duck content along with this article at Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive.

The Mandarin Duck, Illustrated

The Mandarin Duck section of the magazine begins with a beautiful illustration of the colorful duck, seen below.

Photo of the Mandarin Duck from the January 1897 Birds: A Monthly Serial.
Illustration of the Mandarin Duck, clipped from the January 1897 “Birds: A Monthly Serial” on Project Gutenberg

The Mandarin Duck is nothing if not colorful. While its name does not evince its beauty like the Nonpariel’s or the Respendent Trogon’s, it more than holds its own in terms of aesthetics. Now that you have seen the bird, let us hear from Mr. Mandarin Duck himself. We know that he’s a male Mandarin Duck because of his color.

Mr. Mandarin Duck’s Dispatch from China

The Mandarin Duck content begins with a letter from Mr. Mandarin Duck. The letter is subtitled with a note that Mr. Mandarin Duck is writing from China. I suppose that makes sense.

Clip of The Mandarin Duck article and illustration in the January 1897 Birds: A Montly Serial
A clip of the section and the Mandarin Duck as he originally appeared in the magazine from The Internet Archive

Where Does Mr. Mandarin Duck Live?

“Quack! Quack! I got in just in time.” Mr. Mandarin Duck begins. But where did he get in from? “I came as fast as I could, as I was afraid of being whipped. You see I live in a boat with a great many other ducks.” Well, I can see that this is going to be cheery avian content.

Mr. Mandarin Duck tells us that his “master and his family live in the boat too.” “Isn’t that a funny place to live in?” Here, he teaches children that “funny” does not always mean “haha funny.”

How Does Mr. Mandarin Duck Spend His Days?

Mr. Mandarin Duck and his fellow duck boat residents stay inside the boat all night. In the morning, they start quacking until their master wakes up. He then lets them out into the water, causing chaos. “We are in such a hurry that we fall over each other.” After swimming for a bit, the ducks go to the shore to have breakfast. We learn from Mr. Mandarin duck that the ducks enjoy “worms, grubs, and roots.”

The master of the boat blows a whistle in the evening when it is time for Mr. Mandarin Duck and friends to return home. This too causes chaos. “We start as soon as we hear it, and hurry, because the last duck in gets a whipping.” Wait, master whips the slowest Mandarin Duck? “[The whipping] does not hurt much but we do not like it, so we all try to get home first.”

Mr. Mandarin Duck’s Feet

After discussing duck-whippings, we move to more cheery subjects. Mr. Mandarin duck tells us that he has webbed feet, “but I perch like other birds on the branches of the trees near the river.” Mr. Resplendent Trogon was also big on perching, albeit on a different continent.

Mr. Mandaring Duck’s Feathery Attire

Mr. Mandarin Duck touts his feathers as being “beautiful in the sunlight.” His wife always sits by him. He notes that her dress, referring to her feathers, is not like his. Mr. Mandarin Duck’s wife’s “dress” “is brown and grey.”

However, Mr. Mandarin Duck sometimes looks much like his wife. “From May to August I lose my bright feathers, then I put on a dress like my wife’s.”

Describing feathers as a “dress” is a clever way to explain the differences in coloration between male and female Mandarin Ducks.

Mr. Mandarin Duck’s Master’s Family

Lest one had any doubt, Mr. Mandarin Duck’s master and his family were Chinese. Mr. Mandarin Duck describes his master and his family as “very queer,” in this case peculiar – much like how he thinks of his place of residence. Despite the whippings, the master valued his ducks greatly. Mr. Mandarin Duck stated that “[t]hey would not sell me for anything, as they would not like to have me leave China.”

We then learn that Mandarin Ducks were used as wedding presents in China. “Sometimes, a pair of us are put in a gay cage and carried to a wedding. After the wedding we are given to the bride and groom.” Thus, when Mr. Mandarin Duck stated that his master would not sell him, the issue appeared to be only preventing him from being taken out of China.

Mr. Mandarin Duck concluded by bidding his readers well, running out of time to dictate his letter. “I hear the master’s whistle again. He wants me to come in and go to bed. Quack! Quack! Good bye!”

Mandarin Duck Facts

After Mr. Mandarin Duck waddled home at the sound of his master’s whistle, the editors of Birds: A Monthly Serial took over with a section on Mandarin Duck facts.

Facts about The Mandarin Duck, clipped from the January 1897 Birds: A Monthly Serial.
Facts about The Mandarin Duck, clipped from the January 1897 Birds: A Monthly Serial on The Internet Archive

China Loves the Mandarin Duck

The editors describe the male Mandarin Duck as a “magnificently clothed bird.” It noted that they “are held in such high esteem by the Chinese that they could hardly be obtained at any price, the natives having a singular dislike to seeing the birds pass into possession of Europeans.”

Why was this the case? On expert explained,that “The Chinese highly esteem the Mandarin Duck, which exhibits, as they think, a most striking conjugal attachment and fidelity.” He continued, “[a] pair of them are frequently placed in a gaily decorated cage and carried in their marriage processions, to be presented to the bride and groom as worthy objects of emulation.” This passage adds context to Mr. Mandarin Duck’s letter. Mandarin Ducks were and are not only valued in China for their aesthetic qualities, but also for their fidelity to mates.

Wikipedia explains: “A Chinese proverb for loving couples uses the Mandarin Duck as a metaphor: ‘Two mandarin ducks playing in water.” Similar proverbs and phrases are found in Korea and Japan as well. A separate Wikipedia article noted that Korean wedding ceremonies used to involve the groom purchasing a pair of Mandarin Ducks or geese to present to his bride’s family, but “[t]hat tradition gave way to using wooden ducks in place of live animals.”

In any event, an individual writing in 1897 described how difficult it was for Westerners to procure Mandarin Ducks at the time. “I could more easily send you two live Mandarins than a pair of Mandarin Ducks.” Say what you will, but that’s a good line.

A Bit More on Mandarin Duck Mates

The following is an 1897 expert assessment of how Mandarin Ducks cared for their mates:

Mr. Beale’s aviary at Maceo one day was broken open and the male bird stolen from the side of its mate. She refused to be comforted, and, retiring to the farthest part of the aviary, sat disconsolate, rarely partaking of food, and giving no attention to her soiled and rumpled plumage. In vain did another handsome drake endeavor to console her for her loss. After some time the stolen bird was found in the quarters of a miserable Chinaman, and at once restored to its mate. As soon as he recognized his abode he began to flap his wings and quack vehemently. She heard his voice and almost quacked to screaming with ecstasy, both expressing their joy by crossing necks and quacking in concert. The next morning he fell upon the unfortunate drake who had made consolatory advances to his mate, pecked out his eyes and so injured him that the poor fellow died in the course of a few days.

From the January 1897 Birds: A Monthly Serial

The anecdote begins tragically, appears to come to a happy ending, but ends with a Mandarin Duck violently losing his eyes and his life. Well, what would one of these bird articles be without at least one thing to traumatize small children? The trend continues apace.

The Perching Duck

I do not think of ducks as wont to perch on trees, and I suspect that I am not in the minority. The magazine, like Mr. Mandarin Duck, however, informs me that I should cast my perceptions aside with respect to this particular duck. “Though web-footed, the birds have the power of perching and it is a curious sight to watch them on the branches of trees overhanging the pond in which they live, the male and female always being close together…”

The Colors of Mandarin Ducks

The Birds magazine describes the male Mandarin Duck as “gorgeous in purple, green, white and chestnut.” Regarding the female Mandarin Duck, it says that she is “soberly appareled in brown and grey.” As Mr. Mandarin Duck previewed, however, male Mandarin Ducks do not retain their brilliant colors all year around. “This handsome plumage the male loses during four months of the year, from May to August, when he throws off his fine crest, his wing-fans, and all his brilliant colors, assuming the sober tinted dress of the mate.” It continues by noting that the male Mandarin Duck looks and behaves similarly to “[t]he Summer Duck of America” when he loses his colors.

Mandarin Duck Locations

Despite the described recalcitrance of the Chinese in giving the Mandarin Ducks to Westerners, “[t]he foreign duck [had]been successfully reared in Zoological Gardens, some being hatched under the parent bird and others under a domestic hen, the latter hatching the eggs three days in advance of the former.”

Despite its name, the Mandarin Duck is native to Japan. Wikipedia explains that their populations have been reduced in China and Eastern Russia due to habitat destruction. Today, there are a large number of Mandarin Ducks in the UK, Ireland, and in spots in mainland Europe. There are also isolated populations in parts of the United States. Unusual Mandarin Duck sightings have recently excited observers in Vancouver and New York City.

Some Mandarin Ducks in East Asia winter in Southern China.

Quack! Quack! Conclusion

The Mandarin Duck content focused less on the habits and manners of the bird than did the first two bird articles we examined. Instead, it focused more on painting a picture of the colorful duck’s place in Chinese society. The facts about the Mandarin Ducks being viewed as symbols of marital fidelity were interesting. Furthermore, there are few contemporary sources that detail live ducks still being used as wedding gifts in China, with Wikipedia only noting the practice as having existed in Korea.

Absent duck whipping and eye-pecking – admittedly two not-insignificant caveats – the article is not objectionable for children. However, given its focus on things that may not be true anymore – I doubt that too many people in China are heavily concerned with whether Westerners can procure Mandarin Ducks – much of the content stands as more of a historical curiosity than true of Mandarin Ducks in 2021. Of the three birds covered so far, the article on the Resplendent Trogon remains the one wherein the information is most in line with contemporary resources.

This was another interesting article. I had not known about how Mandarin Ducks are viewed as symbols of marital fidelity in China, Korea, and Japan. Now I do. It is a shame that they did not save him for the February 1897 issue. Let us hope Central Park’s Mandarin Duck finds (or found) his true love too.

We will return to East Asia for our next post to cover a shorter article about the Golden Pheasant.