NEW YORK — Initially, birders rejoiced at the rare New York City sighting of a common merganser, an elegant-looking duck with a regal auburn crest, in Central Park.
But as photos of the duck spread quickly on social media, so did concern: a piece of discarded plastic appeared jammed in the duck’s distinctive narrow bill, preventing it from feeding.
“It showed behavior indicative of it not being well, of it being starved,” said David Barrett, a Manhattan birder who has been monitoring the duck. On Thursday, Feb. 20, he posted some of the first photos of it.
New York City’s Parks Department became so concerned for the duck that it began putting together a rescue plan.
On Monday, Feb. 24, the agency said it would send park rangers onto Central Park Lake in kayaks to rescue the duck during its rare visit to New York. A common merganser may only be seen in the city perhaps once a year during migratory travels north.
The Parks Department’s efforts came after failed rescue missions over the weekend by several birders who were concerned that the plastic was preventing the duck from diving for food.
“It can’t close its throat, so when it dives, water rushes in and prevents it from feeding,” said Bradley Kane, a bird photographer in Manhattan whose close-up photos of the duck on Twitter on Saturday, Feb. 22, clearly showed the plastic problem. “It’s a wild bird — it’s not going to take bread from strangers.”
Barrett said that the duck was likely getting progressively weaker from not eating.
Central Park is one of the best birding spots in the country. Birds can become social media sensations within hours, as with the famous mandarin duck, and the red-tailed hawk known as Pale Male.
For New York City birders, the duck seemed to illustrate the specifics of a global problem. Many disturbing accounts exist of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other sea creatures dying after ingesting plastic bags and other debris.
There was the sperm whale that washed up on a Scottish beach in December with more than 220 pounds of netting, rope and plastic in its stomach. There was the 2015 viral video showing scientists in Costa Rica laboriously removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nostril.
With the increasing awareness of plastics in our oceans, including huge expanses of discarded items hundreds of miles wide, here was the issue writ small: A rare visitor to the park was starving to death because of a piece of discarded plastic.
“I hope it gets rescued and that word gets out about plastic being a problem,” said Barrett.
Rita McMahon, director of the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife veterinary center on the Upper West Side, said it was not uncommon to see ailing rare birds touching down in Central Park after running afoul of fishing line or other discarded items.
McMahon said it was unclear where the duck encountered the plastic ring, adding that, “Whether it happened here or elsewhere, it’s in trouble.”
The duck has remained around the lake since Thursday, Feb. 20, near the Bow Bridge — mid-park at 72nd Street, said Barrett, who tried in vain on Sunday to approach the duck to remove the plastic.
Common mergansers spend colder months in southern states and tend to fly north to northern states and Canada this time of year, Barrett said.
The attention, he said, “is not good for the bird, but one benefit from it being in the most visible park in world, it’s going to raise attention.”