The Mandarin Duck Was Here All Along

Image by Andrea Norrito

In fall 2018, a mandarin duck landed in Central Park. New York went crazy. They named him Mandarin Patinkin, and The Cut pronounced him the city’s hottest bachelor. Entrepreneurs captured the duck’s forest green, indigo, royal purple, and orange coloration on T-shirts that sold faster than flatscreens on Black Friday. A dog came to the park—in a duck costume. People painted watercolor portraits of the duck, took arty photographs, flocked to the park all winter long.

Periodically, the duck went AWOL, and every time, his followers panicked on social media, sending out alerts, keeping vigil.

Then, in March 2019, he left for good.

By then, Mandarin had become an international celebrity, acknowledged by The New York Times as “a living, breathing, quacking meme.” Someone posted on Twitter: “Pretty sure this duck moved to Berlin. Saw a lone Mandarin Duck swimming around Charlottenberg last week.” Judy Grandetetas admitted being a little perplexed by all the hoopla: “It looks like a wood duck.” Somebody flashed back with “[Profanity that rhymes with ducking] excuse me? we love the duck.”

Mandarin’s peeps assured each other that he would come back as soon as he either mated (April being customary) or molted (June). But he never returned. In early December, after months of plaintive fretting, the New York media began to speculate on a possible crime: a … clash of cymbals … birdnapping.

Gothamist quoted David Barrett, who runs the Manhattan Bird Alert account on Twitter, as suspecting fowl play. The duck must have “suffered some sort of tragic fate back in March”; what else could have kept him away? Barrett called the disappearance “vexing. How does the world’s most famous duck, one that looks distinctly different from any other native duck, just fly off and vanish?”

Listen up, New York. The duck did not vanish. The duck was right here in St. Louis. You know, flyover country? He landed. He likes it here. He hung out at little Saint Ferdinand Park the year before, and this September, he came back to the same pond on the same park. Sightings were reported twice that month and three more times in November, before and after a snowfall, then again in the first week of December.

We were happy to see the duck, but we did not lose our minds. Nor did anyone feel it necessary to notify NYC.

St. Louis is on the Mississippi Flyway, which means we act as an Airbnb for about 325 species every spring and fall, including whooping cranes and warblers and little blue herons. Eagles nest in trees atop our river bluffs. Trumpeter swans overwinter here.

New Yorkers might be a little more starved for nature. Or eager for the exotic. Mandarin does not belong in North America, after all. His species is native to east Asia, although there have been a few isolated colonies of mandarin ducks that escaped from captivity and bred. In New York, an urban legend quickly gelled: Mandarin had belonged to Chinese immigrants who had to set their duck free before they were deported.

In St. Louis, we knew of none of this. We named the duck Ferdinand. You know, because he likes Ferdinand Park. Families came to see him there. People’s greatest relief was that he seemed to be getting along so well with the mallards.

This is a story about a duck, but it is also a tale of two cities. In one, everything is a little larger and brighter, trends zag around the city like lightning, fear cuts sharp, strangers thirst for communal experiences, and reporters snap up anything fun and run with it. In the other, people are calmer, steadier, more practical. They mistrust memes and fads and fame; they prefer a small pond where all the ducks get along.

Like the one no one ever thought to check when the Hot Duck went missing.