Downtime

Quacks

Why many people—including me—are so drawn to search for the mandarin duck in Central Park.

A crowd of people gathered to observe the mandarin duck in Central Park.
Jenny Zhang

To find the duck is to know happiness.

He’s a small fellow, more compact than his mallard brethren. The almond shape of his eyes creates an impression of perpetual cheekiness. The colors of his plumage, so vivid in photos, pop a little less in person. Nevertheless, the mandarin duck that mysteriously appeared in Central Park last month makes for a striking celebrity encounter, and he acts as if he knows it, gliding serenely this way and that on the water in front of, on the day I went, around 100 gawking humans, each craning their necks to catch a glimpse of their new avian overlord.

As with the rest of New York City and the internet at large, I found myself enthralled by the mandarin duck this past week. A native of East Asian countries, the rare bird appeared in Central Park in mid-October, as originally reported by Gothamist, but it wasn’t until late October that the story really started to heat up, starting with a very good headline in the Cut and circulating, finally, to the paper of record.

Why did this strange little duck, so clearly out of place, so move me and countless others? Perhaps precisely because he’s such an outsider. He has no business emerging in the middle of a certified concrete jungle, bearing no hints of his past beyond a small black band around his right leg that suggests he may have once belonged to someone. “And yet, against all odds, he is here. And he is dazzling,” Julia Jacobs gushed in the New York Times article that cemented the duck’s célébrité.

Jacobs’ and other pieces seem to pin all our hopes on this feathered transplant. Many of us also arrived in this city shedding the baggage of previous lives, in search of a clean slate and a future in which, maybe, we would really make something of ourselves. Rise out of anonymity. Leave a lasting impression in a city of 8 million. The mandarin duck, with zero conscious effort on his part, did that—and became an anthropomorphized hero for our times.

On the other hand, I’m clearly projecting. It’s just a fucking duck.

A duck I was determined to see. This past weekend, under a rare blue sky, I set off to find the duck, following the breadcrumbs dropped by the Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account. “MANDARIN DUCK re-found at the Central Park Pond (near 59th and Fifth) this Saturday morning,” the account declared at 11:26 a.m. I embarked on my 1.5-mile trek across the park in the afternoon, and without any other duck updates since morning, I worried he would be long gone by the time I arrived. Along the way, I alternated between checking Manhattan Bird Alert’s Twitter and every body of water that I passed, looking for any flash of jewel-toned feathers.

But the crowd at the pond told me I’d hit the mark. Soon I laid eyes on the regal creature as he drifted in a small circle near some rocks and grass by the shore, in the company of his unbothered North American cousins. I smiled like a fool as I integrated with the crowd of my fellow fair-weather birders. They were, by and large, a congenial bunch. Strangers shuffled around to make room for each other, some … ducking out of the way so that newcomers could snap photos (everyone was armed with a phone, if not a camera with intimidating-looking lenses). Several made self-deprecating jokes about our shared obsession while simultaneously squeezing closer to the guardrail separating us from our subject.

The mandarin duck in Central Park.
Jenny Zhang

“Where did it come from?” one woman wondered aloud.

“The latest theory is it’s someone’s escaped pet,” a man answered. “ ’Cause he has that little band on his arm.”

“Nonsense,” cut in an older man, wearing a yellow jacket and peering at the bird through bird-watching binoculars, his other hand keeping his bicycle upright. “Obviously he’s staying at the Plaza Hotel and just lost his room key!” We chuckled politely.

I can’t quite explain why, but staring at that damn duck surrounded by equally enamored strangers felt bizarrely, sappily transformative. I’ve never seen people in New York so collectively excited for anything. Two years living here has dulled my enthusiasm, a permanent mode for many who have endured the city’s pace, grime, and savings-account destruction every day. And besides, I don’t need to tell you that life is bleak for a number of reasons right now. Some might say that we are suspended in hell. The duck is a momentary respite. Smiling at him, watching him try and fail to eat a pebble—the little idiot—I felt, briefly, happy in a way I haven’t much lately.

Twenty minutes later, the mandarin duck glided away, perhaps bothered by the growing crowd, perhaps just following the whims of his little waddling heart. He slipped out of view across the pond. I was already mourning.