The Mandarin duck is a small and (in the case of the males) spectacularly colourful species of waterfowl. Widely kept in aviaries around the world, populations often escaped to form wild colonies. One of the largest and best-studied is in southern England. Although declining and nowadays surprisingly hard to find, Britain's wild Mandarin population is more numerous than that of the duck's true home, China, where it is now endangered.
This Poyser monograph is a detailed account of this beautiful duck's lifestyle and biology, with particular emphasis on invasive populations in Britain and overseas. It is a superb addition to the long-running Poyser series.
"In the summer of 2012 I spent some time with Sir Christopher Lever, then in his 81st year. We were visiting Ramsey Island in Pembrokeshire, to see (among other things) the early effects that the removal of an invasive species – Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus – has been having on the recovery of Manx Shearwaters Puffinus puffinus and other native species. A very positive effect, I'm happy to report. The removal of rats tends not to be problematic, politically. Killing them is often an unpleasant necessity and there are not many voices raised in their defence when it comes to undoing the ecological damage caused by their unfortunate island introductions. On our journey back to England we had time for a brief pause in the Forest of Dean, at a stretch of the River Wye that has become a stronghold for the Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata, another non-native and some might say alien invader.
Brown Rats and Mandarin Ducks are both introduced non-natives, yet the contrast in their impacts and how they are perceived could not be more stark. We spoke about Lever's latest book – now published and the subject of this review – and his particular interest in these ducks of Far Eastern origin. I recall the enthusiasm with which he described the first time he set eyes on a pair of Mandarins, as a young birdwatcher in the 1950s. It was in Windsor Great Park, on Virginia Water, where Berkshire meets Surrey. The birds made such an impression on the young man that he can trace his fascination, not only for them but for introduced species in general, to that morning. He describes this formative moment in the Preface to The Mandarin Duck.
Christopher Lever has now studied the history and ecology of introduced vertebrates for over four decades. At the age of 79 he was awarded a PhD by Cambridge University for this work, as well as authoring and contributing to an impressive list of natural history titles, including Naturalised Birds of the World (Poyser, 2005), They Dined on Eland: the story of the acclimatisation societies (Quiller Press, 1992) and many others. He hasn't been afraid to challenge the orthodoxy that if a species is an introduced non-native, it must be a bad thing. He considers such an attitude 'as irrational as it is misguided'.
I always sense from Lever's books that he is driven by compassion for any introduced species that finds itself, through human agency rather than its own pioneering spirit, at large in an alien environment. Compassion hasn't always been one of the stronger themes of conservation, and I admire him for it. He is intrigued by any newcomer's interactions with a novel set of circumstances, and mindful that, although some introduced species do become severely problematic, it is a tiny percentage that do so.
With a UK summer population of around 7,000 birds, the Mandarin looks like it is here to stay. It is a protected species here, though may be vulnerable to lack of familiarity and misidentification (google 'mandarin duck shooting' to find out more). Lever carefully itemises the history of the species here, region by region, and in Europe and the USA, and casts new light on how it has succeeded where, for example, the closely related American Wood Duck A. sponsa failed. Key to this may have been the Mandarin's shedding of its inclination to migrate.
The beauty and extravagance of the birds – especially the male – is beyond dispute, and of course they may sometimes look out of place here. But perhaps they look out of place and improbable wherever they occur, even at home in icy Oriental wetlands. At face value, the Mandarin is an unlikely colonist of these islands, but the monograph may make you think again that this enigmatic species is mere ornamentation, or misplaced trophy of the vain. Lever's book brings out vividly the importance of these birds in Far Eastern culture, across their native range in China, Japan and Korea. They have long been symbols of fidelity and love. It is a reputation well earned, in fact, as the male attends the nest-site during incubation and the family group for a week or two post-hatching.
In writing The Mandarin Duck, it is fitting that Lever has returned to the bird that first inspired his fascination with the fate and impacts of introduced species globally. It's not a controversial species, although some people are against it, in line with their default position on non-natives. That said, I almost wonder if the sight of a male Mandarin in his fullest glory might even be intimidating to other species. Mandarins certainly hold their own with other, bigger wildfowl, and I've watched them bossing more than their share of Berlin parks, for example. In the wild, as a skulking, woodland duck, it doesn't have too many counterparts or competitors here but of course it may occupy those rare and precious nest holes that other species might have used. But generally speaking the Mandarin is a benign and pleasing addition to our avifauna, and it seems churlish to find objection to it without good evidence.
Christopher Lever is a (if not the) world authority on introduced species, and his contribution to the literature on this important, emotive and often controversial area of natural history has been immense. With this work he has done a first-class job of enhancing our understanding of an extraordinarily ornate and tenacious species."
- Conor Jameson, 13-06-2013, www.britishbirds.co.uk/
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