Birds of Chignik Lake: Harlequin Ducks – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

A beautifully marked Harlequin Drake explodes from the waters of Chignik Lagoon. (March 8, 2019)

The nickname Rock Duck is apt for this species that favors swift-flowing, rocky rivers and ocean coasts with wave-lashed rocks. In search of insects, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish, Harlequins go where few other species will venture.  In fact, studies have shown that these birds’ roughhousing ways frequently result in broken bones.

Hen and Drake, Chignik River. (May 5, 2019)

At just 14 to 18 inches in length (34 – 46 cm), these daring ducks may be small, but they are eye-catching. And so another sobriquet, Painted Duck, suits well, particularly when considering the male’s impressively complex plumage featuring rusty red, navy blue, deep aqua and brilliant white. The female’s contrasting white face and cheek dot make her a standout even at surprising distances.

Hens are mousy gray-brown, but that dot near the back of her cheek stands out. Her white face readily distinguishes her from female Buffleheads, which also have the white cheek marking but lack the Harlequin’s white face. (Chignik Lagoon, May 5, 2019)

They’re even sometimes called the Sea Mouse for their rather unducklike high-pitched squeak – and perhaps as a nod to the hen’s mouse-brown plumage as well.

Springtime love – a pair of Harlequins cruises a secluded location on a far bank of the Chignik River. (May 5, 2019)

But it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate appellation for this colorful navigator of mad currents than Harlequin. The name comes from Arlecchino, a character introduced to a form of Italian theater, Commedia dell’arte, in the 16th century. Arlecchino became Harlequin when this type of theater appeared in England. Watching these elaborately-plumed ducks effortlessly bounce down the rock-strewn rapids of a mountain stream, no descriptor could be better than one evoking an actor clad in bright costume and described as “light-hearted, nimble and astute.”1

One Mr. Ellar in the role of Harlequin, 19th century:  Marks, J.L. Details of artist on Google Art Project

Harlequin Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Histrionicus: from the Latin histrio = actor
histrionicushistrio = actor

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. Look for Harlequin in freshwater from spring through early fall; in the lagoon and nearby ocean throughout the year

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on all rivers & streams

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Uncommon in all seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Long-tailed Duck

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

2 thoughts on “Birds of Chignik Lake: Harlequin Ducks – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

  1. Lovely birds! Here in Australia, we have the introduced domestic Welsh Harlequin from Wales. They would have been brought out with other livestock in the late 1700s for their eggs & meat with the British occupation.

    • You sent me to Google on this one… I had thought all domestic ducks except Muscovy Ducks are Mallards. Well, sure enough they are. What I didn’t realize is that, similar to other important domesticated animals, humans have come up with all kinds of Mallard-heritage breeds. The Welsh Harlequin is one such Mallard breed. The drake that fathered the first Harlequins in 1949 looks like a typical Mallard. Apparently in addition to being handsome ducks and terrific layers, Welsh Harlequins are loaded with personality and make great pets. Who knew? Thanks for prompting me to check this out, Gerowyn.

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