The Mandarin duck in Pennypack Park in late November

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Update Jan. 5, 2022

The mandarin duck has died, according to the Pennypack Environmental Center. Asked on social media if they knew the cause, staff said they did not. “It was reported to us and then staff went to verify. Very unfortunate.”

Tipped off by a Facebook group, it only took Jamie Watts and Lynne Rabchuk a few minutes to find what they were looking for, pull out a zoom lens, and begin snapping away.

The mandarin duck in Pennypack Park was putting on a show.

Watts and Rabchuk, a Philly couple who picked up birding as a pandemic pastime and fell hard for the hobby, followed the creature up and down the waterway, capturing photo after photo.

It doesn’t take much for this ornamental bird to draw attention. Males sport brightly colored plumage, with feathers of emerald green, orange-gold, and dark purple swooping back between rust swaths with sapphire accents and stripes of black and white.

Native to Asia, the species isn’t usually seen in this region, and when one is spotted, it can cause a stir. There was widespread frenzy over Central Park’s “hot duck” in 2019, and some local excitement when a mandarin appeared in Delco a few months later.

Now there’s one in Philadelphia proper, and birders are thrilled.

“It is exciting! I hope to get eyes on it myself,” said Damien Ruffner, who works for the Audubon Society as manager of The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park.

Ruffner confirmed the Philly duck now paddling around Pennypack is most likely a former pet — or the result of some kind of pet trade — as opposed to one born in the wild.

Mandarin ducks are thought to have originated in China, and they also now live in parts of Russia, Japan, and England. There are small feral populations in Northern California and North Carolina, reportedly the result of ducks escaping from captivity and breeding in the wild.

That’s kind of their thing: In some Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures, mandarins are thought to mate for life, and are often seen as symbols of fidelity.

The Philly Mandarin has been hanging out with a wood duck Credit: Jamie Watts and Lynne Rabchuk

The Philly preener has been captured by several photographers alongside a wood duck, a species native to this area with which a mandarin may be able to interbreed. The closeness might also just be a survival tactic.

“Ducks are attracted to other ducks,” said Ruffner, of the Discovery Center, explaining that it probably saw the wild birds and figured wherever they were living was a reliable habitat.

Where is that, exactly? According to social media posts from the Pennypack Environmental Center just before Thanksgiving, the mandarin was spotted in the frog pond right behind its building, near the Bustleton intersection of Verree Road and Bloomfield Avenue. An earlier post from Bird Philly gave sighting coordinates (40.089256, -75.062019) a bit further up Pennypack Creek.

It made for an exciting holiday weekend for Watts and Rabchuk, for whom birding has become “pretty much a lifelong hobby.”

Watts added: “It’s a great way to pass the time, but also to really tune into the moment and get a little closer to nature.”
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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...