For the Birds Radio Program: Harlequin Duck

Original Air Date: May 18, 1988

Laura talks about a bird named for the costumed pantomime actors of the Italian stage.

Duration: 3′30″


(Recording of a Harlequin Duck)

About two weeks ago, a Harlequin Duck in full breeding plumage turned up in Downtown Duluth. It was a very obliging male, who allowed all the local birders close looks and even photographic opportunities as it swam about behind the Harbor Inn.

The birdwatcher’s hotline is pretty good in Duluth–all in all, three different birders’ called me about the harlequin. I’m always willing to run out to see one of a Harlequin Duck. It’s one heckufa pretty duck, with striking markings that inspired its name based on the costumed pantomime actors of the Italian stage.

Anyway, I drove over to the Harbor Inn at lunchtime, while the little duck was resting on some rocks at the water’s edge. The sun was shining on it, making the head stripes especially handsome. Harlequin Ducks have rusty sides, and these were easy to observe. After a few minutes, he dropped into the water and swam in the shallow water, pumping his head like a coot. He wasn’t in any hurry to return to the western U.S. where he belongs–he was seen by other birders throughout the day.

Harlequin Ducks normally live in the rushing water of rocky mountain streams, and on rocky shores along the coast. One of their common names is the Mountain Duck. But just about every year a few turn up on the shoreline of Lake Superior, and usually they’re as cooperative as this one was in giving people a satisfying look.

Harlequin Ducks are proficient divers, and when they aren’t sitting on rocks, they’re most often seen diving among sharp rocks in very rough waters. In fresh water they eat mostly caddisfly larvae and mayfly and stonefly nymphs. In the ocean they eat barnacles, snails, and limpets, which they dislodge from rocks, and crabs and other crustaceans in the water. They are tame enough that many have been lured close by tossing bread on the water.

Harlequins are popular among ornithologists because of their striking plumage and because of their rugged ways. Olaus Murie was once photographing a brood of very young harlequins in a turbulent mountain stream when, to his horror, they were all carried down a torrential waterfall. He forced himself to look below to see if he could get a glimpse of their torn little bodies, but, to his amazement, they were all swimming sedately at the bottom, nonchalantly preening themselves as if they dropped down waterfalls every day.

But Harlequin Ducks are less popular among hunters. When shot at, a flock tends to drop into the water as if they were all hit, and then swim under water for a hundred yards or more. This frustrates hunters, who usually give up on them quickly. If one does manage to retrieve a harlequin for the table, he quickly discovers that these ducks don’t taste good either–probably because of their diet. The best tasting ducks eat mostly plant food, not snails.

The harlequins of the Italian stage wore masks, and Agatha Christie named one of her more mysterious characters, who wore a metaphorical mask, Harley Quin after the harlequin. Presumably she was inspired by the mime, not the duck.

(Recording of a Harlequin Duck)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”