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Harlequin Ducks: Aquatic Acrobats

Picture a roiling sea off the coast of northern New England, foaming with white caps with waves crashing onto a rocky shore.  Then imagine yourself just a few yards offshore, diving down and being able to both find and capture a snail, crab or barnacle as the water bounces you up and down and sideways.  Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) not only choose this turbulent habitat in the winter, but embrace it in the summer when they seek out fast-flowing white water rivers and streams on which to breed. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology states that the Harlequin Duck’s ability to swim and feed among the boulders of a raging river is unmatched. Small wonder that they have been found to have more broken bones than any other species!

According to, the Harlequin Duck’s name derives from a character of traditional Italian comedy and pantomime, the harlequin, who appeared in costumes of multicolored triangular patches and displayed histrionics (tricks) – note scientific name of genus and species. They are also known as sea mice, due to their squeaky vocalizations when interacting with each other.

Sadly, the East Coast wintering population is estimated at no more than 1,500 and this species has been listed as Endangered in Canada. (Photo: from left to right – two females, two males and a female Harlequin Duck mid-wave)

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7 responses

  1. Alice

    What a gorgeous duck! I wonder why they don’t paddle or fly to a safer area to gather food? Sad that their numbers are so low.

    January 21, 2022 at 8:32 am

  2. Today, Mary, your post has ventured into poetry right along with these Harlequin ducks. I feel joy as I imagine them tossing in the waves and strong currents, expertly feeding.

    January 21, 2022 at 9:08 am

    • So glad you can joyfully picture them!

      January 21, 2022 at 5:40 pm

  3. Years ago, my wife and I toured Glacier National Park. We were surprised to find Harlequin Ducks happily going over huge waterfalls in the McDonald River a 500 miles from the ocean.

    January 21, 2022 at 9:26 am

    • Hi Jim,
      What an incredible sight that must have been! One you’d never forget!

      January 21, 2022 at 5:39 pm

  4. Mary, did you know that the largest population of harlequins ducks in the eastern US is on the south coast of Isle au Haut? When I first moved to the island I was working with a scientist who was banding and studying harlequins. I did my piece of the study, about their habitat, in the summer when they were not there. But I remember the first time I saw them, in the winter, in a raging sea, bobbing about where the waves were crashing on the rocks, and I thought how amazing it is that anyone could call that home. I saw them often, int he winter, spring, and late fall, hauled up on ledges. There is a place on the island, in the Park, called Squeaker Cove, that supposedly got its name from the calls of the harlequin ducks.

    January 21, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    • No, Kathie, I didn’t know that! So glad you share my delight at their choice of habitat! Love the name Squeaker Cover – what a magical place you spend your summers!

      January 21, 2022 at 5:38 pm

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