Wildlife of the Week!

© Five Star Whale Watching. A male and female Harlequin Duck swim near a rocky shoreline of the Salish Sea.

Welcome to Wildlife of the Week! Our species this week not only dwells in salt water like the Salish Sea, but also spends a significant portion of its life in freshwater areas. The bird below can not only fly, but dive impressive depths too. Who can guess what this versatile and adaptable bird is, along with the image above? If you guessed “Harlequin Duck” (Histrionicus histrionicus), you would be correct! The Harlequin Duck can often be identified by its colorful and unique breeding plumage (found in adult males). The Harlequin Duck is a small waterfowl species, measuring larger than a Bufflehead but smaller than a Mallard duck. They can be heard to present a “mouse-like” sounding call. Have you ever seen, or heard, a Harlequin Duck before? Read on below to learn more about this bird!

The Harlequin duck is grouped within the “crow-sized” class according to The Cornell Lab. The bird is roughly 33-46cm long and 470-760 g, with males slightly larger than females. The bird has a unique silhouette in the water; a compact shape, very round head and a blunt, long forehead with a small grey bill extending. Females do not take on the extensive pattern of breeding adult males, and are brown/gray in colour with small white patches near the bill/eye area and towards the side of the head/cheek. Their belly may appear speckled and mottled compared to the darker regions towards the head. Juvenile male birds resemble females in many respects until they gain their full plumage.

The unique plumage of males is an overall deep gray/blue colour, reddish-chestnut wings, striking white and black stripes along the body and head, as well as similar white spots on the bill and cheek area. This is fully visible at about 2-3 years of age for males. 

The Harlequin Duck is found in 4 major populations dispersed around the globe. In Canada itself, there appears to be a “West Coast” and an “East Coast” population. Both of these two populations occupy wide ranges along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts respectively. The former may be spotted in areas such as Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta (to name a few), the former around Labrador, northern Quebec and Newfoundland (and more).

The Harlequin follows a consistent life pattern, occupying different areas for breeding and non-breeding, the former migration beginning in the spring and the latter in October to November. Breeding usually occurs near white-water rivers and streams, such as in the mountains or forests. When looking for a Harlequin, you may want to look across sandbars and small islands for resting individuals. Active, rocky coastal areas are designated for wintering and these ducks may be spotted near beaches, eelgrass and kelp systems. 

An avid diver, the Harlequin will dive in both its freshwater and coastal habitats for food, which usually pertains to underwater invertebrates such as insects and shellfish, but sometimes fish. The duck is known to feed on specific prey such as larvae, flies, crabs, limpets and fish eggs, among others. The animal uses its bill to access creatures buried in the ground, atop ledges or within rocks and crevices. The Harlequin must feed on a constant basis in order to keep up its metabolism, especially in active or cold habitats. Being smaller than many other waterfowl, it cannot store energy in significant amounts. 

During the breeding season, the Harlequin Duck might choose cliff ledges, banks, logs, bedrock, openings in trees or available ground space to place nests. They will be made with forest litter, stones and/or feathers. The nest location choice is the female’s, and after breeding she will work tirelessly to incubate and feed her chicks as they are reared. Incubation of 4-8 eggs lasts only slightly less than a month. Soon after the chicks are hatched, they are ready to be led to freshwater to feed. They will take off on their own flights at between 40-50 days.

The female has only one brood, and it is believed that Harlequin Ducks are extremely vulnerable to prey availability in terms of reproduction; low food years contribute to less females nesting. The pairs will reunite every year and are monogamous. The Harlequin Duck is one that may be spotted in large groups at times, such as after breeding season when males and non-reproductive or non-breeding females may be found together. Harlequin Ducks are typically a couple years of age at minimum when they begin to breed, and certainly exhibit a very interesting life history.

Harlequin Ducks, as with various other waterfowl and seabirds, face a number of anthropogenic threats. Due to several factors, they are believed to take a longer amount of time to recover their population after a decrease, than do other waterfowl. Habitat disruptions via dams, logging, mines and roads are significant. Human avoidance, oil spills, bioaccumulation, decreased water quality and decreased food through human activity all pose significant threats to the bird. Harlequin Ducks are known to number much lower than levels in the past, but are a protected migratory species in Canada with several efforts outlined to aid in their recovery. 

To try out your Harlequin Duck knowledge, try out some trivia below! 

  1. The Harlequin Duck may dive up to _____ feet. (ANS: 70 feet)! 
  2. Harlequin Ducks use their ____ to steer underwater. (ANS: Wings). 
  3. This duck dives regularly at age ______ (ANS: 3-4 weeks). 


The Harlequin Duck are given some nicknames based on their sounds- what are they?

“Sea-mice” or “Squeakers”. 

Authored By: Alexa D./ Five Star Whale Watching

To learn more about the Harlequin Duck, read on with our References below! 

  1. “Harlequin Duck.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. Cornell University. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Harlequin_Duck/lifehistory
  2. “Harlequin Duck.” Hinterland Who’s Who. Canadian Wildlife Federation. https://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/harlequin-duck.html#:~:text=%20Harlequin%20Duck%20%201%20Description.%20The%20Harlequin,season.%20During%20spring%20and%20summer%2C%20when…%20More%20 

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