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What Is the Harlequin Duck?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The harlequin duck is a bird that lives on both coasts of North America and travels inland on freshwater to breed in spring. Although the female has a relatively simple brown coloration, the male displays flamboyant colored patches of blues, reds and whites on his plumage. The duck has an unusual ability to find food in fast-flowing rivers, as well as seafood from the coastline.

Scientifically, the harlequin duck is called the Histrionicus histrionicus. In addition, it also has the nicknames "squeaker" and "sea mouse", because it has a particularly squeaky type of bird call. The harlequin name comes from a type of Italian comedic character, called a harlequin, who wears brightly colored clothes. "Lords and Ladies" is another nickname for the ducks, again because of the interesting coloration of the males.

Female harlequin ducks are almost entirely brown with three little white spots on the head. The males of the species, on the other hand, has reddish sides and a red stripe on the head. Blue feathers cover the majority of the back and head, although these are shot through with white and black streaks. A harlequin duck can be up to 17 inches (about 43 cm) long and weigh almost 1.5 lbs (about 680 g), with a wingspan of about 26 inches (about 66 cm).

Both sides of the North American continent are home to the ducks, although the population on the Atlantic coast is considered endangered as of 2011. Their western range is from as far south as Wyoming up to Alaska and the eastern population lives primarily in Canada. Although an individual harlequin duck spends most of its time by the sea, it moves inland to breed during the springtime.

Breeding in a freshwater environment is where the harlequin duck exhibits its unusual manner of feeding in streams. The ducks are proficient divers, and can handle rough water and waves on the open ocean, but they can also dive to stream beds and walk along the bottom looking for food. Suitable freshwater food includes baby insects and fish eggs, whereas the ducks go for shellfish and crabs when they are at the seashore.

On average, a female harlequin duck lays about five eggs a year, and looks after the eggs while the male heads off to less crowded areas to find food and renew his feathers. As the duck can handle feeding in water that moves quickly, unlike some other duck species, the nests are commonly found next to flowing water. Cliffs, bushes and holes in the ground are favorite places to lay eggs, once the female has built the nest with grasses to provide security for the eggs.

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