Gliding through the mud-colored mallards over the frosty waters of Ridley Park Lake, he was a king among commoners. Showing off his technicolor plume, he paused before paddling near the photographer on the water’s edge, a feathered model beckoning for a glamour shot on an algae-lined runway.
His best angles? All of them.
Even in the waning winter light, Brian Quindlen knew what he saw: The “hot duck” had come to Delaware County.
“Seeing something like that, it just makes you feel like a kid again,” said Quindlen, an avid Philadelphia bird-watcher who rushed to East Lake Park in Ridley Park on a Sunday in January after receiving a text alert that the rare fowl sporting a colorful coat in hues of reds, blues, purples, and greens had landed in the area.
“This things sticks out," he said. "It’s like looking at a gem in a very dreary winter haystack, you know what I mean?”
The Mandarin duck — an arrestingly handsome and out-of-place bird-turned-internet celebrity in Central Park last fall — is native to East Asia, with feral populations in Europe, North Carolina, and California.
Not to be confused with chill duck or goth duck, the Mandarin “hot duck” rose to viral fame and left the internet quacking after waddling around a Central Park pond last fall, becoming fodder for talk shows and cotton tees alike.
If the multihued waterfowl are spotted in areas like New York or the Philadelphia region, “you can bet that they’re pets" or bred in captivity, said Quindlen, 31, who has been bird-watching for more than 20 years and is a council member of the Delaware County Ornithological Club.
Quindlen, a fifth-grade teacher at Bethel Springs Elementary School, said he “lives hard to bird hard," and teaches after-school and summer birding programs for his students, in addition to his own recreational bird-watching.
Although he is unsure of the dazzling Delaware County duck’s origin story, Quindlen said the bird’s unusually friendly behavior toward humans and lack of bands on its legs leads him to believe it was bred in captivity.
One thing, however, is certain. The Ridley Park bird is not the same “hot duck” spotted in Manhattan and northern New Jersey. The Central Park celebrity has a band on its right leg, and was reported 100 miles northeast in New York on the same day Quindlen witnessed the waterfowl in Delaware County.
And while the Central Park duck has been making near-daily appearances in Manhattan since it was first spotted in October, the Delco duck may have just been stopping by. The next day, Ridley Park Lake was completely frozen, the bird nowhere to be seen, he said.
Its whereabouts have not since been reported by Philly’s birding community.
But wherever he may be, the Delco duck and his famous Central Park lookalike may soon learn there’s more to life than being really, really, really ridiculously good-looking.
Molting season is coming, and according to Audubon Magazine, it’s not going to be pretty.
“In a few months, he’s going to trade in his technicolor dreamcoat for, basically, khakis,” an article warns. “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.”
During the molting period, the birds will not only lose their flashy feathers but also the ability to fly for a month.
But fear not, hot duck lovers. Just like the tale of the ugly duckling, the plight of the Mandarin ends in renewed resplendence. His feathers, flight, and dignity will return in time, experts say, and come fall, the king of the pond will be hot once more.