Harlequin Duck: Waterfowl Wednesday

Hello friends! Happy Winter Solstice! Today is the return of Waterfowl Wednesday. Waterfowl Wednesday is a feature I started at the end of last winter to highlight some of the waterfowl visitors in my area. I love waterfowl, so I decided to write this feature again this winter. Waterfowl includes ducks, geese, and swans.

Our first bird of the season is the clown-like Harlequin Duck. I saw my first Harlequin almost two weeks ago, when Dave and I took a trip to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park.

Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)


Harlequin Ducks are medium-sized sea ducks. Like many other kinds of ducks, they exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females have different plumage. Male’s bodies are a slate blue with a large chestnut patches on their wing. They have white bands on their feathers, collar, and down the back of the neck that are bordered with black lines. On their face they have white crescent-shaped marks before their eyes and a white dot behind the eyes. Females are a duller gray-brown, with white patches around their eyes and a white dot behind the eyes. The male’s tail feather is longer than the female’s.

Male Harlequin Duck (Image by Steve Byland, via https://nationalzoo.si.edu/)


Summer (breeding): Pacific population: Northwest North America from Alaska south to Montana, Atlantic population: Baffin Island, Iceland, Greenland, parts of Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland. Winter: along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts


Summer: mountain streams, fast-flowing rocky rivers. Winter: salt water and rocky coastlines

Female Harlequin Duck (Image via birdzilla.com)


Harlequins are diving ducks, but may also dabble at the surface for food. Eats mollusks, fish, insects, and crustaceans.


Harlequins start to breed at around 2 years old and form pairs in winter and spring. Many males my try to court one female by head-bobbing and tail-raising. Nests are shallow depressions in the ground that are lined with plant material The nests are placed near fast-moving water sources in forested areas.

Only females incubate the 5-7 eggs for about 27-30 days. When leaving the nest she will cover the eggs. Young are precocial, so they leave the nest fairly quickly after hatching. They are able to feed themselves and can dive, but usually dabble. Broods usually combine to be tended to by multiple females.  First flights usually take place 5-6 weeks after hatching.


Call: a mouse-like squeak, because of this call they are sometimes refer to as the “sea mouse”. Females give a nasal eek-eek, males give a whistle tiv

Harlequins in flight (Image by Paul Higgins via utahbirds.org)


Not much is know about populations, but the eastern populations has declined over the last centuries. More than half of the eastern population winters in coastal Maine.

Fun Facts: 

  • The species name comes from the Latin word “histrio”, meaning “actor”. The name “Harlequin” comes from a character that is colorfully-dressed from “Commedia dell’arte”.
  • Due to living in rough enviroments, studies have found that many Harlequin ducks have had broken bones.
  • Harlequins are one of the three ducks in the world who breed in fast-moving streams.
  • In the winter, Harlequins are usually found in loose flocks that also contain scoters and eiders.

Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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