When looking at the fantastic gallery of Robert Clark's photographs of feathers and their fossils at National Geographic, I was reminded of the most captivating plumage I've seen up close: that of the male Mandarin duck, Aix galericulata. Carl Zimmer's article on feather evolution, which Clark's photos accompany, understandably focuses on flight feathers, those exemplars of natural engineering. Last weekend, while pausing to enjoy the raucous waterfowl of Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University, I watched a group of Mallards speeding through the air above the small lake they call home and marveled that birds so perfectly adapted for life in the water were also so swift and graceful in flight. Zimmer also discusses the idea that feathers may have first evolved for their peerless display abilities. In the Mandarin, we also see beautiful feathers evolved for display. particularly in that rich reddish mane and stark white mask. But as a duck, the Mandarin also sports plumage evolved for the needs of an animal who spends a lot of time in the water.
While in England visiting our friends Marci and Alasdair in 2008, we visited St. James's Park in London, populated by an array of birds including mute swans, coots, and moorhens. At the very east end of the park, just as we were about to cross to Horse Guards Parade, I saw the finest of them all. The Mandarin.
I don't think I've ever been so thrilled by a bird, and I'm sure that Jennie and Marci would attest to the glee with which I set about photographing it (Jennie in particular would probably provide an unflattering impersonation, which is one of her more wonderful habits). They're not the most accomplished photos in the world, but they're among my favorites that I've taken.
Confession time: At the time, I mistook the Mandarin for a Wood Duck, a species I'd been hoping to see ever since first gazing on its illustrated form in a bird guide when I was a child. They look nothing alike! I saw the Mandarin's elaborate coloration and assumed it was a Wood Duck. What folly!