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What Is the Labrador Duck?

By Todd Podzemny
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The Labrador duck, Camptorhynchus labradorius, was a sea duck that lived along the northeastern seaboard of North America. It generally is considered one of the earliest North American bird species to go extinct since the European colonization of the Americas. The Labrador duck was not a widespread species even at the time of its discovery, and it was extinct by the end of the 1870s. As a result, a great deal of the duck's natural history is based on conjecture and marginal evidence.

The sketchy historical record is not helped by the fact that the Labrador duck shared its common name, the pied duck, with at least three other distinct species of waterfowl. The Labrador duck earned this other name from the distinctive white patches on its wings, and especially the sharply contrasting black and white plumage of the male duck. This coloration inspired a second and less flattering common name, the skunk duck. Females of the species were a more subdued brown shade but retained the white spots on their wings.

Although the Labrador duck was named for its supposed nesting grounds in Labrador, Canada, no evidence of nests or eggs were ever definitively found. It is known that this species of duck wintered on the coastline between Nova Scotia, Canada, and Long Island, New York, but the location of its breeding grounds is still unknown. This duck appears to have fed almost exclusively on small mollusks, and it possessed a highly specialized bill for digging up and devouring scallops, oysters and snails. Many sea ducks commonly feed on mollusks, but the Labrador duck's diet seems to have contained a much higher proportion than is common today. This specialized diet might have been a contributing factor in the duck's extinction.

Unlike many extinct birds, the Labrador duck does not appear to have been directly hunted out of existence. It was considered to have an unpleasant taste, and its meat spoiled quickly. Therefore, it was never under a great deal of pressure from hunters.

Its extinction might have been the result of a decline in shoreline mollusk populations because of human activity. It also might have suffered from its eggs being over-harvested or exposed to foreign predators, although this is hard to prove or disprove without a clear idea of the breeding ground's location. Whatever the cause, the Labrador duck's numbers steadily declined throughout the 19th century, and the last known specimen was collected in 1875 on Long Island.

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