—By Chris Madson
It was a heck of a storm. It roared down from Newfoundland on December 10, 1878, and lashed the Northeast for two days. The barquentine Belle Keith was driven ashore on Cape Hatteras, along with the brig William Mallory. The schooner Connecticut broke away from her moorings in New York Harbor. The Passaic River rose six feet before the rain stopped, the Susquehanna ran 16 feet above its low-water mark, and the temperature plummeted.
Legend has it that a teenage boy in southwestern New York reacted to the rough weather by grabbing a shotgun and heading out to a tract of bottomland timber along the Chemung River called the Buttonwoods. The river had flooded the trees, and the sharp change in weather no doubt brought a wave of ducks into the country.
There's no record of how many birds the young hunter brought home, but a rumor about one of the birds in his bag quickly spread through the nearby town of Elmira. It was a sea duck, which was strange so far inland. It's likely that no local hunter had ever seen anything like it. Word got around to William H. Gregg, an avid local birder, who paid a visit to the boy's family, hoping to take a look at the bird and collect the skin. Unfortunately, the story goes, the duck had already been plucked and eaten. All that was left to science was the head and neck. Gregg took the remains home and preserved them.
He was confident enough in his identification to report the bird to the officials at American Field Naturalist. "The first specimen of pied duck [one of several historical names for the Labrador duck] known to occur in this locality was taken Dec. 12, 1878," he wrote. "It is rare everywhere, and its occurrence so far south in the interior gives special interest to the subject."
"Rare" was an understatement. The bird on the Chemung River was the last specimen of the Labrador duck ever reported. In the years that followed, several committed ornithologists searched for others. They watched the markets in New York and Boston for birds that had been bought from commercial gunners. They put out the word to hunters in remote parts of the north country. Nothing. A naturalist on an expedition to the Arctic with Robert Peary carried illustrations of the species with him and asked natives in Greenland whether they had seen anything like it. No one had.
The birds were gone before science had done much more than give them a name. Most of what we know about them comes from the reports of 19th-century hunters. In 1829, the pioneering naturalist Alexander Wilson offered a description that was never significantly expanded: "This is a rather scarce species on our coasts, and is never met with on fresh water lakes or rivers. It is called by some gunners the Sand Shoal Duck, from its habit of frequenting sand bars. Its principal food appears to be shell fish, which it procures by diving. The flesh is dry, and partakes considerably of the nature of its food. Of their particular manners, place, or mode of breeding nothing more is known."
The seasonal appearance of the bird along the American coast, as far south as Chesapeake Bay, suggested that it was migratory, but no reliable observer ever reported seeing a hen on a nest or tending a brood. While collecting along the coast of Quebec with his famous father in 1833, John Woodhouse Audubon found several deserted nests "placed on the top of the low tangled fir-bushes." A local told the younger Audubon that these were nests of the "pied duck." Unfortunately, two other ducks, the surf scoter and common goldeneye, were also known as pied ducks at the time, an overlap of names that casts some doubt on the identities of these, the only presumed Labrador duck nests ever reported.
Very few Labrador duck eggs were collected. Today, only nine are known to exist, and there's no way of knowing whether they are genuine. The label on an egg in England says it was collected on Disko Island in Canada's Baffin Bay. Another is said to have come from "Calton," a small town in southwestern Ontario.
William Ross King, a British army officer and avid sportsman who was billeted along the St. Lawrence River in the 1860s, published an overview of game animals in the region in 1866. According to King, "the Pied Duck or Labrador Duck . . . is common in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and breeds on its northern shore, a short distance inland."
Most authorities have been reluctant to speculate on the extent of its breeding grounds, nesting habits, or migratory routes. It was apparently a sea duck, which suggests that it would nest on or very near coastlines. The common eider seems to share some of the food habits of the Labrador duck. Is it plausible to presume that the two shared breeding ranges along the coasts of eastern Canada and Greenland? One guess is about as good as another.
And that leaves the ultimate question unanswered: Why did the Labrador duck disappear? Overshooting by commercial gunners? If that played a part, it must have been inadvertent, because the species was apparently not in high demand as table fare. A naturalist in New York City reported that he saw "six fine males, which hung in the market until spoiled for want of a purchaser." Ross King wrote that "its flesh is dry and fishy, and as an addition to the bag it is not worth shooting." Was it the victim of egg hunters on its northern nesting grounds? Was it already in decline before the arrival of Europeans? None of these explanations is particularly satisfying, especially since other species, outwardly similar, survived these pressures long enough for effective conservation efforts to bolster their populations.
In 1926, the zoologist and conservationist John C. Phillips offered an alternative theory: "that the Labrador Duck had very specialized food habits and that changes in the molluscan fauna, brought about by increased population along our coast, may have proved disastrous. Such changes in minute shell-fish are known to have taken place." It seems plausible that effluent from America's burgeoning coastal cities may have been the unseen influence that tipped the balance. We'll never know.
The passing was largely unnoticed by a young America. The passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and heath hen were to follow the Labrador duck into extinction before the people of that era began to comprehend what they'd lost. And perhaps the saddest part of the Labrador duck's disappearance is that, to this day, we don't know if or how we contributed to its demise. The lesson, along with the species, is gone forever.
Chris Madson writes on matters of ecology, conservation, natural history, and the philosophy of hunting from his home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.