It’s around 11 a.m. when we catch our first Hot Duck sighting of the day. There he is, a mere five feet away — New York’s most famous and flamboyant fowl, the crown jewel of Central Park, rainbow-plumed diva of the avian world — gliding across the 59th street pond like a glamorous sailboat. His feathers are resplendent, his paddling graceful, his colors even more vibrant than the Getty images suggest. The other ducks circle him, those basic-bitch mallards, as if they know there’s a celebrity in their midst. Which of course, there is.
Next to me, David Barrett, a slender and solicitous man with a Stephen Colbert haircut, is bundled up in an LL Bean coat and thick black gloves, and looking on with pride. “I think the other ducks know he’s special,” says Barrett, thrusting his binoculars toward me so I can get a closer look. “I think that’s one of the reasons that he has to be so aggressive, because he doesn’t want to be picked on or ostracized. And people identify with him, because he doesn’t like his space being invaded.”
If there’s one person responsible for the viral fame of the Hot Duck (also known as the Mandarin duck) — the reason for the crowds and the New York Times features and the beautiful fan art — it’s David Barrett. On Twitter he goes by the handle Manhattan Bird Alert, which is both a great moniker for an indie band and the name of the online alert system David runs to notify people about rare birds in the city (he also runs the Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx Bird Alert accounts). Since the Hot Duck was first discovered, Barrett has become the duck’s de-facto PR spokesman and live tracking system, captivating New Yorkers with his dramatic, all-caps updates. These colorful descriptions — and equally colorful photographs crowdsourced from Manhattan Bird Alert contributors — have been instrumental in turning the duck into a beloved city icon with a personality of his own. “The MANDARIN DUCK had a busy day, diving for seeds generously thrown by his admirers, consulting with other ducks on important issues, and shaking off water,” he posted yesterday.
As we are standing by the pond observing the duck, a crowd starts to gather. A woman, recognizing Barrett’s clear expertise, asks if he knows the duck’s name. He looks at her with incredulity. “The Mandarin Duck!” he exclaims incredulously. “It’s THE Mandarin duck.”
“Is it from here?” she asks naively. “Definitely not,” he responds, shaking his head.
Along with Fiona the Hippo and Harambe (RIP Harambe), the Mandarin Duck is one of those rare animals who has captivated the public’s imagination beyond all rational comprehension. “The last few weeks of my life has been crazy,” Barrett tells me as we meander around the pond’s circumference, stopping occasionally so he can share bird facts, like the fact that mallards are the most “promiscuous” ducks on the pond. “They’ll mate with just about anything they can catch,” he explains.
Even before the Mandarin made his New York appearance, it was shaping up to be an exciting year for Barrett. While he has previously broken Manhattan’s all-time record for the most bird sightings within a year, in 2018, he is on track to far surpass his own record. (From our conversation, I learn that birding involves a lot of math; before he began birding competitively in 2010, Barrett was a Harvard and MIT-trained mathematician who also worked at a hedge fund manager.) Previously, he worked on his Twitter accounts a few hours a day, developing an algorithm he built himself that allows registered users to upload their bird sightings. But then, in October, someone spotted the Mandarin Duck — an interloper typically native to East Asia. Another birder took a video of him, which Barrett shared on Manhattan Bird Alert. The duck became an overnight sensation. Glowing stories followed in news outlets around the world, while New Yorkers latched onto him as a beacon of hope in a time of fear and uncertainty.
“It went viral. People went crazy. They’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Barrett breathlessly. “Since then it has been all day, from the moment I wake up,” he tells me. In recent weeks, dealing with the duck has become a full-time job for Barrett — responding to people’s emails and DMs, aggregating sightings, tweeting updates and doing media interviews, in addition to his own competitive birding and his day-job as an investor and computer scientist. Someone once even tried to use the Manhattan Bird Alert hashtag to post a nude photo — the hazards of viral fame! — which his algorithm thankfully blocked. “The Mandarin is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to my alerts,” he says. “He’s brought me 7,000 new followers [he now has over 10,000] and worldwide attention, and people who love coming out here to look at him and other birds.”
While the duck is his own flashy advocate, Barrett is instrumental in pulling strings behind the scenes — the Scooter Braun to his feathery Justin Bieber. “You’ve got to keep people interested, so we emphasized the mystery of the duck from the beginning, because New Yorkers love a mystery,” he tells me. The duck’s origins are actually not that mysterious — it probably escaped from a farm in New Jersey or something equally mundane — but Barrett’s storytelling captivated people, and the duck’s frequent sojourns to other bodies of water have added to the intrigue. Barrett also knows how to work the press; he has been DMing me with updates since I wrote about the duck earlier this month, displaying his flair for drama. “We are about to announce some big news on the Mandarin Duck!” he messaged me one morning, before sharing the big reveal: “He has vacationed in NJ more than we knew.”
As we walk around the pond, Barrett continues to point out other birds, like the wood duck, an attractive fellow with a green and purple head, and a flight of black birds called Common Grackles. (Common? Pass). “There’s this world of wonder that’s available if you know how to seek it out,” he tells me, pointing his binoculars up to the skyline. He tells me about the red-tailed hawks that build their nest by the Plaza. “They raise their hawk families in the most expensive buildings in Manhattan and live the elite lifestyle rent free,” he says. I am jealous of how much joy birds provide him. In addition to his math skills, he tells me his past as a competitive runner make him a good birder, because he can run to a rare bird’s location if need be. “There’s a lot of heavy duty thinking and planning to figure out where I can get that rare bird,” he says, before going into a long digression about wind and weather systems. Spotting a good bird remains “amazing,” he says, like “getting a treat.”
“I have had birds where I’m one of a few who’s ever had one in the entire history of Manhattan,” he adds. “I’ve had a snowy owl!”
Before we part ways, I finally blurt out something that has been keeping me awake ever since I learned about the Hot Duck: the fear that something horrible will happen to him, because New Yorkers simply can’t have nice things. “Let me address those concerns,” he tells me. “The pond is a very safe for ducks.” He explains that the duck is watched most of the day, so it’s unlikely that anyone would try any funny business. At night, he sleeps next to other ducks, so they can alert each other to potential predators. The biggest concern, he tells me, is the Mandarin’s own sense of wanderlust. What if the Mandarin decides to move to the suburbs, or set up permanent camp in New Jersey? “This duck does like to move a lot, it could get lost or move somewhere else or just say: hmm I’m going to stay here now,” he acknowledges.
Unlike some of his fellow bird aficionados, Barrett feels no outrage at the disproportionate hype surrounding the Mandarin, and no disdain for the bandwagon birders like me who line up each day to snap pictures of the famous fowl. “Some experienced birders hate the Mandarin duck, they detest it, they publicly post Twitter shots of them muting the word Mandarin from their feed. One ornithologist even wrote a screed about it,” Barrett tells me, shaking his head. But Barrett thinks Mandarin-mania is a great thing, and he is hopeful that the duck’s popularity will introduce more people to the wonderful world of birding. He’s not interested in monetizing the duck, in turning him into a Pixar or Disney character (DM me Bob Iger). He’s just glad to be able to share his passion with the world. “He’s just so beautiful. Look for the tail-wagging, that’s always fun to see, he looks like a little motorboat,” he says as we circle back toward the duck, handing back the binoculars and imploring the duck to show off for me. “Come on, wag the tail!”
“He makes thousands of people happy in dark times,” Barrett concludes. “There’s nothing bad about him. He’s not partisan. He hasn’t done anything wrong, and that’s the key thing. People see in him only good. They idealize the Mandarin duck as whatever they see as good and natural and beautiful in the world.”