Cold-weather Clown: Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck by Steve Byland, Shutterstock


The Harlequin Duck borrows its name from the Italian comedic character, the harlequin, who wears brightly colored clothes. "Lords and Ladies" is another nickname, again because of the vivid coloration of the males. These ducks gives distinctly unduck-like squeaks when interacting, the source of yet another local name: Sea Mouse.


Although the male’s coloration is stunning, females and immature birds are more subdued, or cryptically colored, for protection against predators.


George Wallace, ABC’s Vice President of Oceans and Islands, remembers: “I saw these birds every day when I was a salmon fishing guide in Alaska. I was always amazed at the ability of these birds to literally outrun a skiff up a river running eight miles per hour. It’s really a lovely sight to see a female with a string of tiny fluff-ball chicks sprinting over the surface of water and then diving for cover under a fallen log.”


The eastern North American population was in decline but is slowly recovering. It is listed as threatened in Maine and is considered a species of special concern in Canada and the western United States.



This species is considered a “sea duck,” part of the duck, goose, and swan family, Anatidae. Harlequin Ducks are essentially marine birds outside the breeding season, with specialized adaptations for life on the ocean. With smooth, densely packed feathers that trap air—vital for insulation—they are well equipped for wet, cold environments. This insulation makes the ducks exceptionally buoyant, and they often resemble colorful little corks as they bounce to the surface after deep underwater dives. While underwater, they search for marine invertebrates, fish, and aquatic insects, their main foods.


The biggest threats to the Harlequin Duck include loss of habitat due to hydroelectric projects, logging, and mining, and direct mortality due to oil spills near coastal areas. Recreational use and other boat traffic on rivers can cause disturbance to nesting birds.


Dan Casey, ABC’s Coordinator for the Northern Rockies Bird Conservation Region, comments: “Breeding Harlequin Ducks here in Montana nest primarily at the headwaters of the Columbia River system, but some also nest on the upper reaches of streams east of the Continental Divide. These are probably some of the most inland breeders on the continent.”