Tough Duck

Tough Duck

Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 03/03/2009


A harlequin duck (Glen Smart/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

If Rudyard Kipling had experienced a Maine winter (though he did live for a time in Vermont), he might have let loose a spoonerism to cap one of his most famous lines, to wit: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the Maine shall tweet.”

No, there aren’t many “tweets” or “chirp-chirps” to be heard down east during the frigid months. Various winter finches and hard-bitten owls often fly in from Canada, it’s true, but mostly the colorful birds seek out sunnier climes. That leaves only the more rugged specimens to be chased by the binocular set, and arguably the toughest of the tough is the harlequin duck.

And here the poet’s East versus West dichotomy remains appropriate. The harlequin demonstrates two genetically distinct populations (though not classified as subspecies), separated by the North American continent.  Relatively abundant on the Pacific side, its numbers there have sometimes been estimated at 200,000 individuals, most of which winter in the Aleutian Islands. Some of the Atlantic harlequins breed in Greenland and Iceland, the rest in eastern Canada. Not enough is known about the latter group, but by the late 1980s their declining numbers had apparently dipped below 1,800. Loss of habitat is their biggest threat, though oil spills could yet be the killer. Most of them winter along the Maine and Massachusetts coasts, while some venture south beyond the Middle Atlantic region.

The dichotomy also appears dramatically between the sexes. Few other North American bird species have carried so many different vernacular names: “lords and ladies” and “painted ducks,” from their elegant carriage and plumage; “squeakers” and “sea mice,” from their rodent-like cries; “rock ducks,” from their winter foraging places at sea; and “torrent ducks,” from their summer breeding habitat along forest streams. But old-time ornithologists were undoubtedly sexist, and the names that stuck to most dimorphic species generally described the males. The harlequin drake’s coat of many colors was thought to resemble the parti-colored costumes of zany characters in Renaissance comedies. Despite the white patches on her head, the hen’s subdued brownish plumage offers concealment while she sits on the nest.

Maine birders look for these winter visitors in the turbulent surf that breaks over the submerged ledges along islands and icy coastlines. I have watched them at Isle au Haut, a six-mile-long island off Stonington, Maine. That’s where they find  prey in great plenty, amphipods and other small critters that favor sites where oxygen is high and the surf stirs up nutrients for them.

I feel the same admiration for the pluck of these little ducks that I do for the falcon’s stoop and its mastery of the air. For me, harlequins are the avian wizards of wild water. I watch with a tingle of pleasure as a small raft of them surrenders in unison to the sea’s undertow. For a few moments the ducks seem helpless on the incline of water sweeping them into the gullet of an oncoming wave. The wave crashes, the surface boils, and the harlequins disappear—only to bob in a moment back to the surface and ride on subsiding foam among the rocks like a flotilla of jaunty toy boats.

No wonder a 19th-century taxidermist detected more broken bones in harlequins than in any other birds he had ever examined. Tough duck!