Science

Forget the Mandarin Duck, a Boring Bird Divorced From Nature

This winter, Central Park has become a temporary home to a far more interesting set of visitors—owls.

Photo illustration of owls as seen through binoculars.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Evan Kirby/Unsplash, Clive Mason/Getty Images, and Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

At 9 a.m. on a Friday, Ginny and I were squinting up through binoculars in Central Park. She should’ve been at the office by now, but that could wait. There was an owl hiding in the upper branches of a white pine.

In the quarter-inch of snow on the ground, our footprints told a funny story: two strangers meeting, then zig-zagging, walking in circles, turning around every few feet to point their toes at a tree. The bird was only visible in glimpses, and only from certain angles. From one spot we could see a few streaky feathers through a small gap in the branches. From another angle we could make out the general shape. We kept repositioning as we searched for an identifying feature—an ear tuft, or some other field mark that would give away the species.

“This is never locked,” Ginny whispered, pushing open the gate to a construction site nearby. She led me back and forth, along some slippery rocks, up and down a short flight of stairs. It didn’t matter; we couldn’t make anything out.

This winter, as New Yorkers flock in droves to catch a glimpse of that famous technicolor duck, something amazing has been happening in the surrounding canopy. More owls have been seen in Central Park than at any time in recent memory—or maybe ever. As early as October, local experts were seeing signs of what they call an irruption year: an influx of birds to an area outside their normal ranges. Owls were colliding with windows in Manhattan, and turning up in unusually high numbers at the Wild Bird Fund, a local nonprofit that rehabilitates injured animals. Before long, birders like Ginny began to find them in the park. First a handful of northern saw-whets appeared. The park had two barred owls, then three, then five. A great horned owl, the largest and most striking species regularly found around the city, began to make appearances above the songbird feeders in the Ramble.

“It’s almost as if we’ve become a little blasé,” Ginny said, reflecting on the owl-heavy season, although she didn’t seem to be. She wanted to put off work a little longer to hunt for a northern saw-whet owl that had roosted nearby for a few weeks earlier in the season. The smallest owl species in this part of the country, the saw-whet is about the size of a grapefruit. Its size, along with its owlish reclusiveness and natural camouflage, make it notoriously difficult to spot.

She led me through a web of tight paths, peering into branches overhead. An eastern towhee flew by—a large, striking sparrow with rusty breast feathers and dark chocolate wings. Ginny stopped. “There he is,” she whispered.

The owl was perched in a holly at eye level, two feet from where we were standing. I had to step backward to get my binoculars to focus. Its eyes were shut, and its head retracted. It was light brown with white streaks. Ginny, who had been animated all morning, went quiet and admired the bird.

When we finally set off toward the main path, we ran into a group of about 10 people, all wearing binoculars. It was Gabriel Willow’s Central Park bird walk. Willow is a local naturalist, artist, DJ, and general nature buff. When we told him we’d found owls, he beamed.

“I don’t know if it’s the owliest year on record,” he said cautiously as we walked. “It’s certainly one of the owliest.” What interested him was the diversity of species. Saw-whets, he explained, live in spruce forests. Barred owls breed in swampy woodlands. Why both species at the same time?

While that mystery deepened, he quickly solved another. “Great horned owl,” Willow declared after pointing his binoculars into the pine we had been pondering earlier that morning. There was a white band under the face—a “bowtie,” he explained—as well as thin, irregular streaking that he called “vermiculation.”

I lifted my binoculars and saw the patterns he was describing, felt them click into place, then stepped back and looked at the scene. Here were a dozen people, a minute’s walk from a subway station, staring up at a great horned owl through a five-inch gap in the pine needles.

The next day I set out in search of a barred owl that someone had reported further north. On the reservoir, I counted almost a dozen bird species. There were northern shovelers with long spoon-shaped bills for scooping small creatures out of the surface of the water, and buffleheads diving for invertebrates on the bottom. A pair of hooded mergansers swam by with some Canada geese. Nearly a hundred ruddy ducks floated and slept, bills tucked away, while an American coot weaved through, bobbing its head as it dodged them.

Side-by-side photos of ruddy ducks and a great horned owl.
Ruddy ducks and a great horned owl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Russell Jacobs.

Like the owls, these birds had come to the city as part of their seasonal migration, arriving throughout the fall and winter with the great mass of wildlife that spills out of the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere every year. Those journeys are part of what defines them. Their wings, their colors, the shapes of their beaks, and their habits have all evolved over millennia to fit their transient lifestyle. They’re in constant flux, changing plumage, diet, and behavior as they move between environments. Buffleheads, for instance, need to be able to survive anywhere in the range of habitats between the Gulf of Mexico and the boreal forests of Alaska—a feat that seems nearly impossible for a bird so small and delicate.

The birds in Central Park are not remarkable because they bring wildness to the city, they are remarkable because they highlight broader patterns that ripple through the entire natural world. Birds time their migrations to coincide with the appearance of fruits on certain tree species and the arrival of favorable winds that will help transport them. They’re prompted by the icing over of ponds, the movements of prey, the habits of other birds (buffleheads, like some owls, depend on holes left behind by specific woodpeckers to make their nests). Each sighting offers a glimpse of a vast, natural Rube Goldberg machine that spans the Earth.

Well, almost each sighting. The defining quality of the Central Park Mandarin duck is that it is divorced from those natural systems. An escaped captive or abandoned pet, it has almost nothing to teach us about the big picture. It swims and preens and eats, sure, but it will never migrate over the Korean Peninsula, or use its amazing plumage to flag down a mate as it would in the wild. Thousands of miles from its native habitat, it looks so out of place that it feels artificial—like something made by Mattel or Hasbro.

The barred owl eluded me but a few blocks downtown, the great horned was in a new pine, fully visible in a branch that overlooked a small footpath. Why was the bird there? Our best explanation is that irruption years occur when food becomes scarce, forcing birds to expand their ranges in search of a new supply. For owls, this means small mammals and birds, which Central Park has in abundance. Rats, chipmunks, squirrels, house sparrows, and pigeons thrive here, feeding on trash left behind by park-goers. Disemboweled mammals and owl pellets jammed with tiny skeletons have been turning up throughout the park this winter—grim indications that the owls are getting by just fine, using the city to compensate for temporary shortages elsewhere. Even the adorable, diminutive saw-whet that Ginny and I found was partaking in the violence.

“It used to keep half a mouse under it when it slept during the day,” a birder named Greg Greco told me of the small owl. “It would like, munch on it when it got hungry.”

A northern shoveler duck on the water.
Northern shoveler
Russell Jacobs

On my way out of the park, I did something I’d been putting off since the fall. I joined the multitudes in the southeast corner to see the animal famous enough to merit Page Six–style local news coverage. The celebrity duck was standing on the edge of a sheet of ice, surrounded by mallards. There was crowd noise and the sound of camera shutters firing off. People came, saw, and left, moving through like they were on a conveyor belt. It took a few minutes to get a good position at the edge of the pond.

Nobody seemed to be looking too closely until a woman named Dana Seman, who’d been watching quietly for a while, asked to borrow my binoculars. When the bird came into focus, she gasped.

“It’s just like in the photos,” she said, “but it’s real life!”

Dana is a personal trainer, but she has an art background. She rattled off metaphors as she looked. The Mandarin duck, she said, was “sculptural.” It reminded her of a Noh performance she’d seen in Japan, and of an ornate paddleboat she’d ridden once on a lake. She pointed out white markings on what she called the “sagittal plane.”

“A pool toy,” I suggested.

“Definitely.”

She had a good eye for detail, and the Mandarin duck is obviously beautiful. But I couldn’t help but feel like we were peering into a beautiful void. The owls and the other wild birds in the park exist on their own terms: They’re autonomous and secretive, hiding in the trees during the day, tucking their faces in when we’d like a look. The Mandarin duck out in the open, out of place, and deprived of context is an empty vessel—ready to accept whatever metaphors we choose for it. Like some glittery corporate sculpture in the lobby of an office building, it means whatever we want it to mean.

Why, then, when there are owls around, have we chosen this gaudy bird as the object of our collective adoration? I suspect it has to do with the patience wild animals require of us. Maybe we like the Mandarin duck because it asks for almost nothing. It hangs out in the same pond nearly every day, its identifying features so numerous and recognizable it might as well be wearing a nametag. Its ties to the natural world have been conveniently severed. It is pre-digested, ready-made content: a bird for a society short on time but eager for experiences.

As the light began to fade, the Mandarin duck lost some of its luster. People started to trickle out. Dana and I stayed behind for a minute to admire a flock of grackles as they passed overhead and disappeared into a nearby tree. All around us, the park was shifting into night mode. A raccoon scurried up a slope across the water on its way to pillage the local garbage cans. A rat bolted out under the light, then plunged back into a new shadow. I kept my ears open as I walked out, hoping for a hoot, but all I could hear was the sound of traffic passing on 59th Street.