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Harlequin Duck

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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