Meet Wrinkle the Circus Duck. He will charm you and stop traffic, even in Central Park

It is the afternoon of a sunny cool Wednesday in the third winter of this plague. Broadway performances are being canceled, again. Every day brings news of another football game rescheduled, of the Rockettes kicking no more at Radio City, of a thousand flights that will not fly.

Into the heart of this unhappiness strides a duck named Wrinkle. Wrinkle is a trained circus duck. He can flap his wings on command.

On this chilly December day, Wrinkle’s best trick is simply to walk around Manhattan with a pair of red shoes on his wide yellow feet. Wrinkle is accompanied by Joyce Kung and Justin Wood, a pair of circus jugglers who serve as the duck’s owners, trainers, parents and best friends.

As they walk from Fifth Avenue through Miners Gate and into Central Park, the three performers fall into line. Kung takes point. Wood brings up the rear.

Wrinkle, a pet duck with a large social media following, wears her signature red shoes as she visits Central Park in Manhattan, NY on Wednesday December 22, 2021. Thomas Bergreen stops walking his dog Scooter to take a photo of Wrinkle. Bergreen, a lifelong New Yorker, said he's never seen a pet duck in all the years he's lived in New York.

Wrinkle takes center stage. His yellow bill is curled, as if in perpetual smile. He is fat. He walks by swinging his feet like a side-wheeler steamboat. His clean white feathers reflect the weak winter sun as if Wrinkle himself were not the object but the light itself.

“It’s a duck parade!” says Kung, 34.

The people of Manhattan, dulled by two years of pandemic, are more than charmed. They are ebullient. Thrilled. Some lose all manners. A man swoops in close. He positions his phone within a foot of Wrinkle’s beak. He snaps a few pictures, chuckles and walks away. He does not ask permission, nor does he acknowledge Kung or Wood in any way. As the parade continues, more men do the same.

“Excuse me. Is that your duck?” says Caryn Leigh, 51, a resident of the Upper East Side who’s dressed for fashionable athleisure.

“Yes, it is,” says Wood, also 34, who wears a black trenchcoat, maroon Nike sneakers with Velcro straps, a wallet on a long silver chain, and round John Lennon glasses tinted blue.

“Really? Oh, my God,” Leigh says. “So cute.”

Pandemic duck

Wrinkle is a product of the pandemic as much as he is an antidote. For years, Wood dreamed of adding animals to his act. The idea came during a gig at the Petco store on the Upper West Side, where a small crowd gathered to watch him juggle.

Then a Petco employee placed some cats on a nearby table. What juggler? Wood’s crowd vanished.

“No matter how good I’m doing,” Wood said, “I can’t compete with a kitten.”

For a while, Kung and Wood considered dogs. A good circus act requires about five dogs, Wood says, each trained for different tricks, each with its own set of costumes. For a pair of circus performers always in search of paying work, this seemed cost-prohibitive.

Then came COVID. Every circus stopped traveling. Busking on empty sidewalks came to seem especially pointless. The notion of getting a duck morphed from joke to dream to business plan.

“We were looking to do online stuff to make money,” Kung said. “We wanted to make more YouTube content.”

Wrinkle, a pet duck with a large social media following, wears her signature red shoes as she visits Central Park in Manhattan, NY on Wednesday December 22, 2021. Joyce Kung holds Wrinkle and her food and water while Justin Wood pulls up some media on his phone.

As circus workers, Kung and Wood do all the normal circus-y stuff. They juggle pins. They juggle flaming torches while pedaling a unicycle with one foot. Wood performs a trick in which he balances six folding chairs on his chin. Already, this work is kneading injury into his body. Wood tore a ligament in his knee while hanging from a flying trapeze. He couldn’t work or get paid for six months until it healed.

“The best contract you get as a circus performer will be three shows a day, six days a week,” said Wood. “You’ll have one day off. And you’re so sore and tired.”

Someday this pandemic will end. Kung and Wood hope to be ready with a new act, one that’s easier on their joints and bones. With a chubby waterfowl waddling around, they can take extra time preparing their next trick, confident the audience is charmed and happy.

“I’m just trying to make people smile,” said Wood. “So I said, OK. I’ll try a duck.”

In September 2020, a resident duck on Wood’s mother’s farm in Kentucky laid six white eggs. Only one hatched. The duckling was a tiny yellow baby who liked to fall asleep on Wood’s face. Wrinkle’s training started immediately.

“If you do good those first six months, then you’ve set them on their trajectory,” Wood said. “But if you mess up, then you can’t undo it.”

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All baby ducks follow their mothers. Kung and Wood hoped to prolong this habit into adulthood so Wrinkle could walk around the city without a leash. Ducks also like to flap their wings. Wood and Kung learned to encourage this behavior by offering tomatoes, lettuce, corn and butterflies.

Wrinkle prefers compliments.

“Wiiiiiings! Wiiiiiiings!” Wood said, calling to his duck during a recent promenade in Manhattan. “Come on Wrinkle. You’re the only one with wings!”

For a few seconds, it seemed Wrinkle might ignore the command. Then the duck lifted his head. His wings cantilevered open, white feathers splayed to show fine translucent tips.

“Good girl! You’re so smart! And talented! And beautiful!” Wood said. “Everybody loves you! That’s right, Wrinkle. You’re the best duck in the world!”

With time, Kung and Wood realized they had more to learn about ducks than Wrinkle had to learn about the circus. Wrinkle was a snuggly toddler, and his tail feathers curved into a gentle flip. Among Pekin ducks, these are the traditional attributes of a girl. So when Wrinkle turned 3 months old and was registered as a support animal, her sex was described as female.

As she grew, Wrinkle got sassy. She pecks hard enough to break skin and leave bruises. When she gets excited, Wrinkle tries to mount the nearest leg.

Kung and Wood realized their mistake.

“Genetically, she is a boy duck,” Wood said. “But her preferred pronoun is she/her.”

“It’s a little ambiguous,” Kung said.

Wrinkle, a pet duck with a large social media following, wears her signature red shoes as she stretches her wings as she visits Central Park in Manhattan, NY on Wednesday December 22, 2021.

Enter the star

Wrinkle’s best surprise is his presence as a performer. Thirty seconds after the duck parade enters Central Park, it’s clear the humans have been demoted to mere members of the cast.

Wrinkle is the star.

Dogs strain against their leashes. Two dozen people stop, turn and giggle. The young hold out their phones and shoot videos. Most people in the growing crowd wear masks.

But this chubby white duck, who struts in red shoes like a happy king, exerts magnetic power. People edge closer. This is the primal joy of New York City, to walk outside and see something you never expected to see. Pandemic be damned. The people will be heard. They remove their masks and speak.

“I had a duck once. I won it at a fair,” Kathy Goodman, who lives on the Upper West Side, says to no one in particular. “I got tired of her biting my toes. But this duck is so well behaved!”

“She’s just adorable!” Debbie Lewin, a resident of the Upper East Side, says of Wrinkle.

Circuses remain idle. The pandemic makes it dangerous to busk the crowded sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. Like the nation around them, Kung and Wood are left to improvise a hybrid life, partly open to the world, partly closed.

As people approach, Kung reaches into her pockets and retrieves a handful of stickers. Each is printed with Wrinkle’s Instagram address. Wrinkle’s newest fan takes the stickers, turns them over, and laughs.

Wrinkle shakes his tail. His feathers are soft as kitten fur. They smell like a freshly laundered pillow.

Christopher Maag is a columnist for To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on New Jersey’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @Chris_Maag 

This article originally appeared on Central Park is not ready for Wrinkle the Circus Duck