Histrionicus histrionicusharlequin duck

Geographic Range

Harlequin ducks breed in Alaska and Yukon, south to Wyoming, California, and Massachusetts, from southern Baffin Island and Quebec south to Labrador and the Gaspe Peninsula. They also breed in Greenland and Iceland. They winter along the coasts of the Bering Sea Islands, Japan, Korea, China, California, and from southern Labrador to Long Island. (Alderfer, 2006; "Harlequin Duck", 2002; John and John, 1994)


Harlequin ducks live along fast flowing streams and rivers in rocky terrain with plenty of vegetation, such as trees, during breeding season in the summer. The offspring cannot be seen very well in this type of terrain. During summer they can be found as high as 3352 meters above sea level. In wintering locations they feed and rest in shallow shore waters, along rocky coastlines. (Alderfer, 2006; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; "Harlequin Duck", 2002; John and John, 1994)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal
  • Range elevation
    0 to 3352 m
    0.00 to 10997.38 ft

Physical Description

Harlequin ducks are between 35.6 and 50.8 centimeters and weigh 0.45 to 0.68 kilograms. Males have blue-grey bodies with chestnut flanks and distinctive white patches on the head and body. These white patches are outlined with black. In flight males show white on their wings with a metallic blue speculum. Females are dusky brown with two or three whitish patches on the sides of the face. Females do not have any white on their wings in flight and do not have a speculum. However, when this species molts it is hard to distinguish between males and females. (Alderfer, 2006; "Harlequin Duck", 2002; John and John, 1994; Milton and MacDonald, 1996; T., 2001)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    0.45 to 0.68 kg
    0.99 to 1.50 lb
  • Range length
    35.6 to 50.8 cm
    14.02 to 20.00 in
  • Range wingspan
    61 to 70 cm
    24.02 to 27.56 in


When a female is looking for a mate, one characteristic that is looked for is bright plumage, indicating sexual selection in this sexually dichromatic species. Nice plumage is seen as a sign of good health. A female duck wants to choose a mate that will be able to protect her from other males during the mating season. Plumage of males is affected by age and the time of their last molt. Males also perform courtship dances to attract females. They will often shake their heads and tails while making a whistling noise when they are around females. They may also make short, ritualistic flights close to the water surface. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Elphick, et al., 2001; "Harlequin Duck", 2002; Robertson, et al., 1998)

Harlequin ducks choose their mates beginning around October. Breeding begins in May and June. Harlequin ducks are seasonally monogamous, with pairs forming for a single breeding season. Females lay from 5 to 8 eggs, which hatch after 27 to 29 days. Young fledge and become independent by 70 days old. Breeding success for both males and females remains low until the age of 5, even though they become sexually mature at around 2 years old. ("Alaska SeaLife Center", 2009; "Harlequin Duck", 2002; John and John, 1994; T., 2001)

  • Breeding interval
    Harlequin ducks breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Harlequin ducks breed from May to June.
  • Range eggs per season
    5 to 8
  • Range time to hatching
    27 to 29 days
  • Range fledging age
    60 to 70 days
  • Range time to independence
    70 (low) days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Females invest heavily in raising their offspring. Males participate in nest building. Once a female begins to incubate the eggs, the male leaves and migrates back to the ocean to undergo the annual molt. Females incubate eggs with her down feathers and through the development of a brood patch, where she loses feathers. This way, not only are the down feathers heating the eggs, but when she is on the nest her bare skin will be directly on the eggs transferring her body heat efficiently. The brood patch actually fills with fluid to help incubate the eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the female takes her hatchlings to the water within a few days of hatching and teaches them how to catch and find their own food. Approximately 45 days later the offspring begin to fly. Females continue to protect their young until it is time for both the mother and the offspring to migrate back to coastlines. Sometimes there is post-independence association with the parents because these ducks often migrate to the same area yearly. (Adams, et al., 2000; Elphick, et al., 2001; John and John, 1994; T., 2001)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


Lifespan of harlequin ducks normally ranges from 12 to 14 years in the wild. There is no information on the lifespan of harlequin ducks in captivity. ("Alaska SeaLife Center", 2009)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    12 to 14 years


Harlequin ducks migrate in spring from coastlines to inland areas. They start to migrate from the east coast of North America during April to mid-May and from the west coast of North America during late March. They are not seen in large concentrations and move short to intermediate migration distances. Immature or injured ducks remain on wintering grounds. In the fall males undergo molt migration that begins around late June. Molt migration is when males leave females during incubation and return to the coast to undergo their yearly molt. (Alderfer, 2006; John and John, 1994)

  • Range territory size
    4.4 to 6.6 km^2

Home Range

The home range of harlequin ducks is relatively small, both during the breeding season and winter. They are seen in small groups both migrating and in their home range. (Reed and Flint, 2007)

Communication and Perception

Harlequin ducks communicate mainly with vocalizations. Males also perform courtship dances to attract females. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988)

Food Habits

Harlequin ducks eat primarily an animal diet of invertebrates and some fish. They have been reported eating crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and small fish. Harlequin ducks dive for their food but also dip their heads in shallow water to obtain food. ("Alaska SeaLife Center", 2009; "Seattle Audobon Society", 2008; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; "Harlequin Duck", 2002; John and John, 1994; T., 2001)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans


Harlequin duck females and immature individuals are cryptically colored to protect them from predators. They are also vigilant and will swim or fly to escape threats. Reported predators include bald eagles, jaegers, ravens, and river otters on adults, and mink, martens, foxes, and wolves on nests. ("Alaska SeaLife Center", 2009; T., 2001)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Harlequin ducks are important members of the ecosystems they inhabit. They are parasitized by lice and ticks. ("Alaska SeaLife Center", 2009)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • lice (Mallophaga)
  • ticks (Acari)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Ducks in general have always been important to humans. Many types of ducks are hunted and consumed by cultures around the world. As a game animal, harlequin ducks have an economic importance to the duck hunting industry. ("Harlequin Duck", 2002)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There is no evidence suggesting that harlequin ducks have a negative impact on humans.

Conservation Status

Harlequin ducks are not endangered currently. At one point they were considered threatened on the Atlantic coastline. These ducks are susceptible to oil spills, since they spend most of their time in the water, and high mortality has resulted from previous oil spills. For example, Alaskan harlequin ducks were still exhibiting reduced survival rates as a result of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as late as 1998. Logging is a significant threat in the state of Washington because it removes suitable forests along the streams that these ducks use during the breeding season. Also, logging causes silt build up in streams, reducing the amount of prey available. ("Alaska SeaLife Center", 2009; "Seattle Audobon Society", 2008)

Other Comments

In the northeast this species has the nickname "The Lords and Ladies". (John and John, 1994)


Alex Riley (author), Centre College, Matthew Johnson (author), Centre College, Alex Riley (author), Centre College, Matthew Johnson (author), Centre College, Stephanie Fabritius (editor, instructor), Centre College, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an animal that mainly eats fish


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


2009. "Alaska SeaLife Center" (On-line). Harlequin Duck. Accessed March 12, 2009 at http://www.alaskasealife.org/New/visitors/index.php?page=Harlequin-duck.php.

Gale Group. 2002. Harlequin Duck. Pp. 365- 389 in M Hutchens, J Jackson, W Bock, D Olendorf, eds. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, 2 Edition. MI: Farmington Hills.

2008. "Seattle Audobon Society" (On-line). Harlequin Duck. Accessed March 13, 2009 at http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird_details.aspx?id=83.

Adams, P., G. Robertson, I. Jones. 2000. Time-Activity Budgets of Harlequin Ducks Molting in the Gannet Islands, Labrador. The Condor, 102/3: 703-708. Accessed March 15, 2009 at http://www.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010-5422(200008)102%3A3%3C703%3ATBOHDM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-G.

Alderfer, J. 2006. Complete Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook- A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc..

Elphick, C., J. Dunning Jr., D. Sibley. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

John, B., F. John. 1994. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc..

Milton, R., P. MacDonald. 1996. "Department of Natural Resources" (On-line). The Harlequin Duck- Keeping Watch. Accessed May 06, 2009 at http://www.gov.ns.ca/natr/wildlife/conserva/19-04-6.htm.

Reed, J., P. Flint. 2007. Movements and foraging effort of Steller's Eiders and Harlequin Ducks wintering near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Journal of Field Ornithology, 78/2: 124-132. Accessed March 13, 2009 at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/117963253/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0.

Robertson, G., F. Cooke, R. Goudie, W. Boyd. 1998. Moult Speed Predicts Pairing Success in Male Harlequin Ducks. Animal Behaviour, 55/6: 1677-1684. Accessed March 12, 2009 at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W9W-45RFGWF-X&_user=4678464&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000063948&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=4678464&md5=a9e1418c68b294c5b92606dec1ca69fd.

T., T. 2001. "Blue Planet Biomes" (On-line). Harlequin Ducks. Accessed March 15, 2009 at http://www.blueplanetbiomes.org/harlequin_duck.htm.