Mandarin Duck © Sharon Wada

By Sharon Wada


May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Board member and Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) Sharon Wada shares a few of her experiences that nurtured her interest in a brave lion and a very special local duck, and how she eventually learned to embrace being a different kind of bird.
He showed up one day at Juanita Beach Park in early April 2021. As soon as photographers posted images of him on Facebook and eBird sightings skyrocketed, bird enthusiasts from all around Puget Sound lined the shore of Lake Washington with binoculars and tripods each morning, hoping to stake out the best position for his arrival. He was reported to be flying in around sunrise from a neighboring waterfront property but as with all ducks, he had the free will to go anywhere he wanted. A bit of luck and timing was needed to spot him. I remember seeing several very disappointed and bleary-eyed birders from Olympia leave after a long drive, a three-hour wait in the cold winter chill, and no duck sighting to warm them.

“Manny,” as local birders began to call the celebrity, is an adult male Mandarin Duck. This stunning guy is the only one that I know of in the Seattle area and when he first was spotted, so many of us wondered, how did he get here?

An Anna's Hummingbird hovers amidst falling snow.
Manny splashing down from a log at Juanita Beach Park in 2021
The dramatic but unlikely explanation is that he was a vagrant thrown off course by a fierce storm that blew him across the Pacific Ocean during his annual migration between breeding grounds in Siberia and wintering territory in China and Japan. Another thought was that he roamed away from one of the feral Mandarin Duck populations that exist in the U.S. But while we don’t know for sure, it’s most likely that Manny was a local “pet” duck that escaped from someone’s private pond to the wilds of Lake Washington. Nothing exotic but pretty gutsy.

I’m not exactly sure why I found Manny’s situation so interesting. Beyond his natural beauty, there was something very endearing about a creature with Asian roots living its life in a world full of ducks not of his own kind. And there also was the survival factor. If previously captive, he may have been fed but now needed to learn how to forage and fend for himself. A fellow photographer mentioned that he seemed to catch on to the available aquatic edibles by following around his “cousin” Wood Ducks as they dunked their heads down near the shoreline, harvesting lily pad stems and other tubers.

Manny munching on a lily pad tuber in Juanita Bay Park
According to Joanna Klass, lead animal keeper at the Woodland Park Zoo, Wood Ducks are indeed Manny’s closest relative. “They are the only two members of the genus Aix and occupy very similar niches in their native ranges,” she said.

“Ducks are very adaptable,” Klass added. “Manny has a good chance of leading a relatively normal life. It sounds like he has taken up with the locals which means that he can find all of the local watering holes. They are not very picky eaters, so will gladly consume a wide variety of native invertebrates and plant life.”

Lady Liuwa

Lady Liuwa in 2014
My fascination with Manny was similar to how intrigued I was by the story of Lady Liuwa, a lioness that had survived on her own with no other lions for at least 7 years in a heavily poached, war-torn national park in Zambia.

Over time and with much persistence, African Parks successfully introduced another lioness that eventually had cubs and enabled Lady to live the rest of her years with an adopted family before she passed away in 2017. I learned about her in a heartwarming 2009 National Geographic documentary called “The Last Lioness”. Her predicament really touched me, so much so that in 2014, I traveled for three days to see and photograph her in Liuwa Plain National Park. Observing Lady as an “auntie” in her newfound pride remains one of my most memorable life experiences.

Lady Liuwa with her adopted family: Sepo and her three cubs.
Maybe I was captivated by both Manny and Lady Liuwa because when I transitioned to high school, I was a bit of a loner. After a pretty carefree childhood filled with lots of activities and friends, I started to feel different when I turned 16, in part due to typical teenage growing pains but also, I began to acknowledge my ethnicity as one of a few Asian Americans in a predominantly white suburb of Seattle. In our community, one could count on two hands the number of students of Asian, Latino, or Black American descent. 

My Parents’ Story

Knowing that we were a minority, my parents emphasized education and assimilation; do well and blend in with the other students. Like other marginalized people, they knew what it felt like to be randomly ostracized and taunted for being Japanese American, as well as subjected to one of our federal government’s most racist actions of the 20th century.

Both were born in the U.S. during the Great Depression to Japanese-born parents (or Isseis). As Nisei, the second generation of Japanese immigrants in America, my parent’s childhoods were spent living on the West Coast where they experienced racism first hand, especially after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. As adolescents, they were forced to move with their families to temporary livestock quarters, waiting for barracks to be built in some of the most remote deserts hundreds of miles to the east. 

Eventually, my Dad’s family was moved to a camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming while my Mom’s family was shuttled to Poston, Arizona. 120,000 people of Japanese descent who lived in Washington, Oregon, and California were interned in 10 so-called “relocation centers” surrounded by barbed wire. The majority of them were U.S. citizens.

I can’t imagine a childhood living for three years in dusty, cold, overcrowded shelters with no privacy, no normalcy, and no freedom.

One Generation Later

So how could I be unhappy about my situation?  One generation removed from my parents’ incarceration, I was attending a good high school with excellent teachers and had every opportunity that my parents may have wanted but didn’t have. In spite of all of these advantages, I could not ignore a rising feeling of alienation inside. I felt too different in race and mindset to blend into one of the cliques that were part of mainstream student life. However, I also was too much of a “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) to hang with the one small group of Asian-American kids who banded together. I remember thinking to myself, “I hate high school” and started to make a plan for life beyond it.
During my junior year, a supportive guidance counselor helped me to request permission to attend senior year in college, getting credit for both with the same coursework.  Thankfully, it was approved and I applied to Seattle Central Community College (now Seattle Central College). Back in the day, this type of move was quite rare. Only one other student and I, from a high school graduating class of 500+, decided to take this path. I’m glad to see that these types of “running start” programs have become much more commonplace.

My senior year of high school and first year of college at Seattle Central were incredibly eye-opening. The campus had this vibrant energy and it was invigorating to walk down the bustling hallways filled with people of color and hear the cadences of Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages I did not recognize.  I knew no one and was one of the youngest students in my classes, but for the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of the real world.

I belonged.

So perhaps this is why I’m especially touched by stories of loners who eventually find their way. I would bet that everyone reading this can relate to feeling like a misfit or alone at times in their lives. And I wonder if people come to Juanita Bay to look for Manny, not only because he is a gorgeous creature but because they can relate to him a bit and appreciate his gumption in surviving a whole year on his own in a wild new place. Perhaps they are also happy that he is hanging out with other birds and has been frequently spotted in the company of a steady “girlfriend” Wood Duck.
Manny hanging out with a female Wood Duck in Lake Washington.
“Communication is pretty clear cut with ducks – they will let you know what they are thinking,” Klass noted.  “There are some subtle cues and differences between species of course, but many species often flock together throughout the year so they definitely share a common language.”

Given Manny has been observed mating with this lady Wood Duck, one of the questions swirling is, “I wonder if they can have offspring?”  So, I asked Klass what she thought.

Manny doting on his “friend” in Juanita Bay.
“This is a hot topic that may not have a clear answer,” she explained. “Mandarin Ducks are unusual in that they have 84 chromosomes while other duck species have 80. Upon closer examination of the Mandarin Duck’s chromosomes, it was found that they are acrocentric which means that one arm is shorter than the other.”

She continued, “It is suspected that this difference in chromosomal shape prevents successful hybridization. There are a few records of hybrid cases with Mandarins, but nothing terribly concrete.” (This blog post has more information.)

If Manny is unable to breed successfully with Wood Ducks, it’s still so nice to see him puttering around in Lake Washington with a variety of other water birds.  Let’s hope that he lives a natural and peaceful life, basking in admiration from us “Manny fans” and hopefully from a certain female Wood Duck.

We are all odd ducks sharing a big pond.  Let’s fill it with empathy.

Note: If you have the privilege of seeing Manny roaming the shorelines around Kirkland and Juanita, please remember not to feed or coax flight and other behaviors. When I saw him last, onlookers were maintaining a respectful distance and simply enjoying his company. It was a lovely sight.
Sharon Wada

Sharon Wada

Seattle Audubon Board Member

A native Seattleite and graduate of the University of Washington, Sharon enjoyed a decades long career in healthcare information technology, including 25 years managing her own independent consulting firm.  Sharon is an avid photographer but fairly new to birding. She considers it a privilege to observe and capture images of birds in nature.