Photo: Marty DeAngelo/Great Backyard Bird Count Participant

Harlequin Duck

Histrionicus histrionicus

Turbulent northern waters are favored by this strikingly patterned little duck. It is often found in summer on rushing rivers, diving and swimming against the current, climbing easily on steep and slippery rocks above the water. When moving inland, pairs of Harlequins usually fly low, following every bend of the river rather than taking overland shortcuts. In winter, seems to choose the roughest coastal water, with rocks pounded by the surf. Studies show that many adult Harlequins have had broken bones, probably a result of their rough surroundings.
Conservation status Apparently stable in Northwest. Population in eastern North America evidently has declined substantially over the last century.
Family Ducks and Geese
Habitat Mountain streams in summer; rocky coastal waters in winter. Nests along shallow fast-moving rivers and streams, even around rapids and waterfalls, often in forested country. Generally not on streams fed by melting glaciers (where food may be scarce). At other seasons mostly on ocean, on exposed coastlines where waves pound on rocks, seldom on sheltered bays.
Turbulent northern waters are favored by this strikingly patterned little duck. It is often found in summer on rushing rivers, diving and swimming against the current, climbing easily on steep and slippery rocks above the water. When moving inland, pairs of Harlequins usually fly low, following every bend of the river rather than taking overland shortcuts. In winter, seems to choose the roughest coastal water, with rocks pounded by the surf. Studies show that many adult Harlequins have had broken bones, probably a result of their rough surroundings.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, breeding
  • adult female
  • immature male (1st winter)
  • adult male, breeding
  • immature male (1st spring)
Feeding Behavior

forages by swimming underwater or by diving and walking on the bottom; also by dabbling at surface or up-ending in shallow water. Uses bill to pry food items off of rocks underwater.


Eggs

usually 5-7, sometimes 3-10. Pale buff or cream. Incubation is by female only, 27-30 days. Female covers eggs with down when leaving nest. Young: leave nest shortly after hatching. Young are tended by female but feed themselves; are able to dive when quite small, but take most food from water's surface at first. Broods often combine under care of multiple adult females. Age at first flight probably 5-6 weeks after hatching.


Young

leave nest shortly after hatching. Young are tended by female but feed themselves; are able to dive when quite small, but take most food from water's surface at first. Broods often combine under care of multiple adult females. Age at first flight probably 5-6 weeks after hatching.

Diet

mollusks, crustaceans, insects. Diet at sea is mostly mollusks (including mussels and periwinkles) and crustaceans (including crabs and others); also a few small fish, marine worms. On rivers may eat mostly aquatic insects, and may eat small amounts of plant material.


Nesting

First breeds at age of 2 years. Pairs form during winter and spring. Several males may court one female, surrounding her on water. Displays of male involve raising tail and stretching neck, with ritualized head-bobbing movements. Nest site is on ground, usually close to water, well hidden under bushes or among rocks; in Pacific Northwest, rarely nests in tree cavity. Nest (built by female) is shallow depression with grasses, weeds, twigs, lined with down.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Mostly a short-distance migrant, moving from inland nesting areas to nearby coasts. Migrates in small flocks, usually following rivers or coastlines.

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Migration

Mostly a short-distance migrant, moving from inland nesting areas to nearby coasts. Migrates in small flocks, usually following rivers or coastlines.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A mouse-like squeak and various low whistles.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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