Birding

Will You Still Love the Hot Duck When He Looks Like This?

Big changes are coming for Central Park’s beloved bachelor. Mandarin fans, meet molting.

With so much dividing us as a country—whether corn syrup belongs in beer, which Fyre Festival documentary is more ethically compromised, probably other stuff—it’s comforting that we can all agree on one essential truth: New York City’s Mandarin Duck is one fine bird.

But here's something you might not know about the famous Hot Duck: In a few months, he’s going to trade in his technicolor dreamcoat for, basically, khakis. Those white patches around his eyes? They'll shrink to what looks like a set of cream-colored, wire-frame glasses. The purples and greens on his head and breast? They'll be dingy and brown. And those giant orange feathers sticking up like sails? Gone. 

That's because all birds replace their feathers at least once a year, a process known as molting. After breeding season, males of many duck species, including Mandarin Ducks, molt the showy feathers they use to attract mates and slip into drabber attire known as eclipse plumage. While we think the dude looks pretty dapper in this subtle pallete, the molt that precedes it is definitely kind of an awkward phase. 

Central Park’s dashing drake was first spotted last October, probably not long after growing back his bright feathers. That means the duck’s countless visitors have only ever seen him at his hottest. Will the infatuation fizzle when he loses his flair? 

We don’t know for sure when the normcore makeover will begin. In their native range, Mandarin Ducks start to shed their breeding plumage sometime between May and July, says bird expert and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman. New York is at roughly the same latitude as the bird’s home turf, so that’s probably about what we can expect. That would put the Central Park Mandarin on track to molt along with Wood Ducks, his close relatives and frequent pondmates. But this bird escaped from captivity, Kaufman notes, which makes the timing a little harder to predict.

A Mandarin Duck in almost complete eclipse plumage—subtle but tasteful, if you ask us. Photo: Richard Mittleman/Gon2Foto/Alamy

Like other ducks, our guy has an unusual approach to molting. Most birds swap out their wing feathers a few at a time so they’re always able to fly. But waterfowl molt all their flight feathers at once, leaving them grounded for about a month. To make themselves inconspicuous to predators during that vulnerable period, ducks molt their head and body feathers first for camouflage. “I think that's fascinating in itself, a duck lifestyle strategy that most people have never heard of,” Kaufman says.

On top of donning camo, the Mandarin Duck might also protect himself by skipping town. Some waterfowl fly hundreds of miles from their breeding grounds in search of a safe place to molt, typically choosing large water bodies where they can swim away from danger, Kaufman explains. “An interesting question is whether the Mandarin will hang out on one of the lakes in the park, or if it will go out to Jamaica Bay or something,” he says.

If the bird decides to stick around Central Park during molting, he won't be nearly as easy to spot among the other ducks. “It’s going to be less conspicuous for sure,” Kaufman says. “But the size and shape are still going to be pretty good clues. It won’t be any harder to pick out than any female duck on the pond. In a way, it might be kind of a good bird-ID lesson.”

Once he’s able to fly again, everyone's avian crush will grow back his flashy feathers. And by fall, he’ll once again be the Hot Duck we know and love. Whew.

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