There were two nests that year; one in Galway, the other in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. Now there are reports from Glasnevin that mandarin ducks are nesting there. If so, it’s another ‘first’, at least south of the border with Northern Ireland.
’Mandarin’, a Portuguese word for a Chinese bureaucrat, is the name given to one of the world’s most important languages and the world’s most glamorous duck. This dumpy little bird has a longish tail, a big head and a thick neck. The drake has large orange ‘sails’ protruding from its back. The curvilinear lines and gorgeous plumage patterns are impossible to describe; however, Jim Wilson and Mark Carmody’s Freshwater Birds of Ireland has some fine photos of them.
Native to east Asia, mandarins were brought to Britain from China in the middle of the 18th Century. Some of them escaped, or were deliberately released, from wildfowl collections during the 1930s and began breeding in the wild. Nowadays, about 3,500 pairs nest in the UK, 14% of the world’s total and the largest population outside the Far East. Like the pheasant and the Canada goose, the mandarin has been accepted, begrudgingly, as a European species, having been long regarded as an illegal immigrant.
Vagrants from Britain visited Wexford in 1971. By 1978, mandarins were breeding in the valley of the River Shimna in County Down. R. G. Mathers, who studied them, found between 21 and 27 adults there between 1990 and 1995. There have been reports of their presence elsewhere in recent years, mainly in the east of the country, but no real evidence of breeding.
Being virtually a woodland species, this is an oddity among ducks in our part of the world. Stretches of slow-flowing river flanked by dense cover are the preferred habitat, especially if tree branches extend out over the water. The eggs, well hidden in a hole in a tree-trunk, can be up to 10 metres above the ground. The female chooses the site, although the drake remains in attendance. Such devotion, however, is not entirely altruistic. Keeping a watchful eye on the spouse ensures that rivals can’t mate with her and cuckold the lawful husband. Unless the nest is open, there is no added material. The single clutch is large, generally nine to 12 eggs. There can be up to 14. The mother does the incubating and cares for the ducklings, leading them to water which may be up to 2km away, as soon as they hatch.
In China, couples were given a pair of mandarins on their wedding day; these ducks are deemed to be faithful to each other, an example to the bride and groom. On the face of it, this might seem an unlikely claim; the drakes of most duck species are notoriously unfaithful to their mates. Indeed, the more glamorously attired the males, the more feckless and promiscuous a species tends to be. The exotic mandarin drake must surely be a Casanova, or so you would think. But no, Chinese tradition got it right; mandarin drakes are unusually attentive to their mates. Not that they are saints; like most of the duck tribe, they have promiscuous tendencies and sometimes form a pair bond with a second mate.
Wearing gaudy attire is not recommended if you’re a nesting bird. It’s easy for a predator to spot and venturing close to a nest will attract unwelcome attention. Drakes of most species, therefore, desert their spouses as soon as egg-laying gets under way. Mandarin drakes, however, tend to remain on the breeding territory, escorting the female on her feeding sorties. Being able to remain in the vicinity of the nest is a luxury which ground nesting ducks can’t afford but mandarin eggs, hidden high in a tree cavity, are invisible and relatively inaccessible to would-be predators.
With so little forest and thick cover adjoining rivers here, nesting opportunities for mandarins seem limited in Ireland. It’s unlikely that this exotic creature will ever stage a collared dove-style invasion.