Understanding Waterfowl: An Odd Duck

The harlequin duck is among North America's most unusual waterfowl species

© Robert Kranefeld

By Chris Madson

Odysseus was a mariner born and bred, but soon after he pointed his ship toward home from the great battle for Troy, he made the mistake of offending Poseidon, the god of the sea, who vented his displeasure by throwing one obstacle after another in the sailor's path. After years of aimless wandering across the Mediterranean, Odysseus summoned the ghost of a famous seer to ask for advice on how to get back to his wife and son.

The phantom advised him to honor the sea god in a place "where men have never known the sea."

How could he find such a place? Odysseus asked.

"Go overland and take an oar," said the ghost. "The spot will soon be plain to you, and I can tell you how: some passerby will say, 'What winnowing fan is that upon your shoulder?'"

I was reminded of that bit of Homeric humor a few years back as I traveled up the west bank of the Yellowstone River and, as a casual passerby, stopped to inspect LeHardy Rapids, a treacherous stretch of white water in the heart of Yellowstone National Park. As I looked out over the rocks, I saw a smallish dark bird flying just inches above the standing waves and foam.

I put the field glasses on him as he joined two of his brethren loafing on a flat-topped boulder well out in the roaring current. The white slashes on their heads, breasts, and backs stood out against the slate gray and rust of their bodies, the markings as exotic to my landlubber's eye as birds of paradise. Not an oar among them, but here they were, three mariners just in from the Pacific, some 800 miles from the ocean. Harlequins.

Every species of duck is unique in its own way, but a few stand out from the crowd. The harlequin duck would certainly qualify as one of North America's most unusual waterfowl species. Most ducks, whether they nest in the potholes of the Dakotas or on the Kamchatka Peninsula, migrate generally north and south. More often than not, harlequins travel east and west, spending the majority of the year on rocky points and shorelines along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, then flying inland to nest in the Boreal Forests of Canada and Alaska and in the northern Rockies.

The females of most duck species choose a new mate each winter or early spring.  Harlequin hens mate for life. Among the puddle ducks, most hens nest in their first year of life. Harlequin hens may pair and nest at two years of age, but they generally have little success until they're five. The typical puddle duck is lucky to live two or three years. A harlequin that reaches adulthood is likely to live several more years. One drake in western Canada lived to be at least 15, and a hen is known to have lived to the ripe old age of 17.

Most ducks raise their broods on wetlands of one kind or another. Of the more than 100 species of ducks in the world, only four typically breed along the rapids of high-country streams: the aptly named torrent duck of the Andes; New Zealand's blue duck, also known as the mountain duck; the Salvadori's teal, a native of New Guinea; and the harlequin.

The harlequin's connection with white water begins while the ducklings are still in the egg. The hen generally builds her nest almost within reach of the spray from a mountain stream, and her youngsters hatch to the velvet roar of the water as it plunges through the rocks and downed logs in its way. Within hours, the ducklings parade after her into sheltered eddies along the bank, following her example as she picks the nymphs of aquatic insects out of the rocks. By the time they are ready to fly, the young harlequins have already mastered the heavy current, undertow, and waves found in their nurseries.

Biologist Ira Gabrielson once wrote that "the birds seem to delight in playing in the tumbling waters, and they show astonishing ability to navigate successfully the roughest water." On the Tonsina River in southern Alaska, Gabrielson watched "a brood of half-grown young" as they drifted into a stretch of heavy rapids. They "were lost to sight for a moment in the white water and then appeared in a quieter spot below, none the worse for the experience." He saw broods in Oregon and Washington shoot similar torrents so often that he concluded that "this is a regular method used in avoiding intruders."

Once the young birds can fly, the hen leads them from the headwaters of the continent to the ocean. She comes back to the same stretch of rocky shoreline every year to keep her rendezvous with her mate, who left her soon after she finished her nest and returned to the sea to molt. Unlike most other sea ducks, harlequins stick close to the shoreline, spending much of their time loafing on surf-pounded reefs and rocky points.

Late in the 19th century, Alaska naturalist L.M. Turner watched flocks of harlequins feeding in the Aleutians and remarked, "When a breaker comes over them, they dive until it passes.  At Attu, I have seen them dive before a breaker struck them, and in such shallow water that I often wondered how they held on, as they came up at times not a foot from where they went down."

Many of the old-timers noted the harlequin's social nature. During the fall and winter, the birds gather in tight bunches, both on the water and in the air. This behavior left them unusually susceptible to 19th-century gunners along the Atlantic coast. As ornithologist John Phillips noted in 1925, "Their habit of traveling in compact little flocks makes them an easy mark when on the wing, and their 'packing' on the water usually makes a shot all too effective."

Due to its small size and often isolated haunts, the species has never been easy to count, but it was probably never abundant on the eastern seaboard. Whatever the harlequin's population in the East was before settlement, it had begun to decline by the end of the nineteenth century. By 1989, observers estimated that there were fewer than 1,000 birds wintering on the East Coast. Canadian and U.S. authorities closed the season on harlequin ducks in the Atlantic Flyway that year, and the birds remain protected in the East today.

The North American stronghold for harlequins is out West, where they winter from coastal Oregon and Washington to Alaska's Seward Peninsula. Good surveys are hard to make across such a vast stretch of rugged coastline, but rough estimates place the western harlequin population at somewhere around 200,000 birds.

All in all, the harlequin is an odd duck. With its summer home in the roaring rapids of the Boreal Forest and its winter quarters in the crashing surf of the northern oceans, nothing about the species fits our notion of waterfowl. Which only goes to show the limits of our understanding.

Somehow harlequins have found a way to make a home in the foam and treacherous currents of these wild, disparate waters. An ecologist would dissect the apparent anomaly in a long-winded dissertation on organic evolution and the concept of the niche. My grandmother, bless her departed soul, would offer a simpler explanation, which applies to the natural world just as surely as it applied to her kitchen cupboards: "There's a place for everything, and everything's in its place."

Chris Madson trained in wildlife biology and spent 35 years with state wildlife agencies before pursuing a full-time career in freelance writing. He makes his home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.