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Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)

harlequin duck


  • Is a small, rounded duck with a body length ranging from 36 to 48 centimetres (14 to 19 inches)


  • Male has the following distinguishing characteristics:
    • White crescent in front of the eye and a white patch near the ear
    • Slate blue body plumage with chestnut sides and flanks and a dark blue-brown belly
    • Head is dark and the crown has a black stripe with a chestnut stripe on either side
    • Streaks of white are present on the head and body
  • Female characteristics include:
    • Dark brown body plumage with a white belly
    • Brown checks
    • Three white patches on the head, located behind, below and in front of the eye


  • Generally silent outside of the breeding season.
  • Male courtship voice includes a descending trill and squeaky whistles.
  • Female courtship voice is a low croak or a harsh ek-ek-ek.
  • Distributed in northern and arctic ecozones, and populations are found along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.
  • Eight to ten months of the year are spent in rocky coastal habitats.
  • Migrates inland during the summer to nest.
Natural History


  • Nests along swiftly flowing, clear mountain streams that are removed from human disturbance and have adequate nesting cover on islands or along the banks to conceal nests.
  • Prefers specific types of streams and terrain for breeding, and pairs will often return to the same area each year.
  • The narrow habitat requirements of the species restrict its breeding range to the mountains and foothills in Alberta.


  • Dives to river bottoms searching for fish eggs and aquatic invertebrates, in particular caddisfly and stonefly larvae.

When Active

  • Is active, but uncommon, in Alberta from late April or early May to September.
Reproduction and Growth

Breeding Behaviour

  • The harlequin duck breeds at a relatively late age, about two to five years old.
  • Shallow nest is built and lined with grass, other plant material and down feathers.
  • After breeding, males leave the females around July and travel to the west coast to molt. Females remain at nesting sites to incubate eggs and raise offspring alone.
Conservation and Management


The harlequin duck is classified as Sensitive in the current General Status of Alberta Wild Species report. See:

For more information on this species, and the assessment and listing process, see the Status of the Harlequin Duck in Alberta report at:

In a subsequent detailed status assessment, Alberta’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee identified the harlequin duck as a Species of Special Concern—a species that without human intervention may soon become threatened with extinction. See information on the Endangered Species Conservation Committee and Species of Special Concern at:


  • Late breeding maturity and intermittent breeding behaviour of this species results in low annual population growth.
  • Breeding habitat is very specific, limited geographically, and vulnerable to human activities such as logging, mining, grazing, and outdoor recreation.

Current management

  • Regional inventories and research initiatives have led to:
    • restrictions on recreational boating and rafting on a number of streams and rivers in Alberta
    • potential site-specific mitigation for the effects of mining, and monitoring programs to evaluate population response


Until recently, the harlequin duck was simply managed as a migratory game bird, although waterfowl hunting does not generally occur within its range in Alberta.

Hunting season information for this species is provided in the current Alberta Guide to Hunting Regulations. To view the guide online or to order a printed copy, visit the My Wild Alberta website at:


Page Information

Updated: Jan 15, 2014