Species Profile

Harlequin Duck Eastern population

Scientific Name: Histrionicus histrionicus
Taxonomy Group: Birds
Range: Nunavut, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador
Last COSEWIC Assessment: November 2013
Last COSEWIC Designation: Special Concern
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern

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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck Photo 1



The Harlequin Duck is a small, subarctic sea duck. The adult male appears dark from a distance, but has colourful patches. He has slate blue plumage, chestnut sides, and streaks of white on the head and body. The crown has a black stripe with a chestnut stripe on either side. The belly is slate grey. Females are a rather plain brownish-grey with patches of white behind, below and in front of the eye. Immatures resemble the female until late autumn of their first year, when young male ducks begin to resemble the adult males. They do not gain the full adult plumage until the next winter.


Distribution and Population

Four populations of the Harlequin Duck are found world-wide, two of them in Canada: the western population along the Pacific Coast, and the eastern population along the Atlantic Coast. Harlequin Ducks of the eastern population mostly breed throughout much of Labrador, along eastern Hudson Bay, and the Great Northern Peninsula of the island of Newfoundland. There are also known breeding populations along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gaspé Peninsula, northern New Brunswick, and southeastern Baffin Island in Nunavut. Satellite telemetry and banding information have indicated that the migration patterns of Harlequin Ducks are variable. Many of them spend the winter on the east and south coasts of Newfoundland, in southeastern Nova Scotia, in southern New Brunswick, in Maine, and at a few locations south of Cape Cod. Small groups may spend the winter along the Gaspé Peninsula and Anticosti Island of Québec, and a few individuals may spend the winter in Prince Edward Island. Approximately half the wintering population can be found in New England. The eastern North American wintering population has declined from historical estimates of 5000 - 10,000 to fewer than 1500 individuals. Numbers appear to be increasing in North America over the last ten years to an estimated 3700 individuals, but still less than 2000 Harlequin Ducks spend the winter in eastern Canada.



Harlequin Ducks spend most of the year in coastal marine environments, but they move inland each spring to breed along fast-flowing turbulent rivers. During the winter, the Harlequin Duck are often associated with offshore islands, headlands, and rocky coastline where the surf breaks against rocks and ice buildup is minimal. These ducks feed close to rocky shorelines or rock skerries.



Harlequin Ducks first breed at 2 or 3 years of age. Their nests are usually built on the ground along the banks of fast-flowing streams. Surprisingly, the first two active Harlequin Duck nests ever reported in eastern North America were both on cliff ledges, one about 20 m above the water. The clutches of 3 to 8 creamy eggs are incubated by the female, who later leads the hatched young to secluded streams to feed. Fluctuations in food and water levels can affect breeding success. The reproductive rate of Harlequin Ducks is low, which makes it more difficult for this duck to recover from a decline.



The primary cause of the decline of the Harlequin Duck is not clearly known, however, over-hunting could be an important cause. Although hunting of this population of Harlequin Ducks has not been permitted in recent years, the birds remain extremely vulnerable to hunters because of their tameness, their tendency to feed close to shore, and the resemblance of the female and immatures to ducks of other species which may be legally hunted. In addition, the contamination, destruction, and alteration of their habitat are considered important factors for the decline of the eastern population of the Harlequin Duck. Some of the once fast-flowing streams have been altered by hydro and mining projects, and other human activities have impinged on both the breeding and wintering grounds and the food supply. Oil spills and chronic oil pollution are major threats to the duck's wintering habitat.



Federal Protection

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The Harlequin Duck Eastern population is protected by the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act. Under this Act, it is prohibited to kill, harm, or collect adults, young, and eggs. Harlequin Ducks are also protected in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador under their respective Endangered Species Acts.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.


Recovery Progress and Activities

Summary of Progress to Date Over the last 10 years, Harlequin Duck population numbers have slowly rebounded and there is evidence suggesting their distribution is widening from their traditional core locations. Although their numbers have not yet achieved historic population levels, they are presently experiencing a strong recovery across much of eastern Canada. Summary of Research/Monitoring Many studies have been completed or are underway to aid in the recovery of the Harlequin Duck including, mark/recapture analyses, and habitat, diet, genetic, and disturbance assessments. Banding and satellite telemetry has proven useful to identify Harlequin Duck movement patterns while also informing scientists and biologists on site selection for staging, breeding, wintering, and moulting habitat. Monitoring of four important wintering hot spots has contributed to the knowledge and recovery of the species. The four core survey locations are Cape St. Mary’s (Newfoundland), The Wolves (New Brunswick), Isle au Haut (Maine, USA), and Sachuest Point, (Rhode Island, USA). These sites have offered insight into the status of Harlequin Duck populations and have allowed researchers to monitor population change. The knowledge gained from these core sites offers insight into the stewardship needs for Harlequin Ducks, while also contributing to our knowledge of this species’ habitat requirements, and the importance and need for habitat protection. Summary of Recovery Activities The hunting of Harlequin Ducks was banned in the four Atlantic Provinces and Québec in 1990. This ban effectively stopped all hunting for this species within the Atlantic Flyway – allowing their populations the opportunity to rebound from the impacts of this threat. A species at risk stewardship coordinator is working with the Innu Nation, the Labrador Metis Nation, and the Nunatsiavut Government. The stewardship coordinators provide information on species at risk to community members through presentations as well as act as community contacts for species at risk in the area. The stewardship coordinators also represent their community on recovery teams to ensure that local and traditional knowledge is included in recovery planning. Newfoundland and Labrador has been host to significant conservation efforts aiding the Harlequin Duck’s recovery. Posters and brochures have been created and distributed across Atlantic Canada, and presentations are being given at local schools to create public awareness for the Harlequin Duck. Displays have been erected at local airports around the province to reinforce the stewardship of this species. Through consultation and discussion with local hunters in coastal communities throughout eastern and northern Canada, traditional knowledge on the Harlequin Duck has been gathered, and, in turn, used to further create materials and programs relevant for species recovery. URLs Canadian Wildlife Service: Québec Regionhttp://www.qc.ec.gc.ca/faune/sauvagine/html/harlequin_duck.html Canadian Wildlife Service: Atlantic Regionhttp://www.ns.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/harlequin/index.html

Hinterland Who's Who: Harlequin Duck: http://www.hww.ca/hww2.asp?pid=1&cid=7&id=47



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

6 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Harlequin Duck, Eastern population (2015)

    Though increases have been recorded in southern parts of its breeding range, the population size of this sea duck remains relatively small. Its tendency to congregate in large groups when moulting and on its marine wintering areas makes it susceptible to catastrophic events such as oil spills. Such threats are substantial and are likely increasing, and are of particular significance for populations of long-lived species such as this sea duck, which can be slow to recover. Its population also appears to rely on continued management efforts, particularly those involving restrictions on hunting.

Action Plans

  • Multi-species Action Plan for Gros Morne National Park (2016)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Gros Morne National Park of Canada is a SARA action plan (SARA s.47) for Piping Plover (melodus subspecies), American Marten (Newfoundland population), and Red Crossbill (percna subspecies). The plan also outlines measures to monitor and manage 11 other species of conservation concern that regularly occur in the Park. This plan applies only to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of Gros Morne National Park.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) Eastern Population, in Atlantic Canada and Québec (2007)

    The Harlequin Duck is a migratory bird covered under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 and is under the management jurisdiction of the federal government. The Species at Risk Act (SARA, Section 65) requires the competent minister to prepare management plans for listed special concern species. The Harlequin Duck was listed as Special Concern in May 2001. Canadian Wildlife Service – Atlantic Region, Environment Canada led the development of this Management Plan. All responsible jurisdictions reviewed and approved the plan. The plan meets SARA requirements in terms of content and process (Sections 68-70).

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2013-2014 (2014)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to "assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species". COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (October, 2013 to September, 2014) from November 24 to November 29, 2013 and from April 27 to May 2, 2014. During the current reporting period, COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 56 wildlife species. The wildlife species assessment results for the 2012-2013 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 0 Extirpated: 0 Endangered: 23 Threatened: 12 Special Concern: 20 Data Deficient: 0 Not at Risk: 1 Total: 56 Of the 56 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 40 that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 25 of those wildlife species resulted in a confirmation of the same status as the previous assessment.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act : Terrestrial Species - January 2015 (2015)

    The Government of Canada is committed to preventing the disappearance of wildlife species at risk from our lands. As part of its strategy for realizing that commitment, on June 5, 2003, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species provided for under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Extirpated, Endangered and Threatened species on Schedule 1 benefit from the protection of prohibitions and recovery planning requirements under SARA. Special Concern species benefit from its management planning requirements. Schedule 1 has grown from the original 233 to 521 wildlife species at risk. Please submit your comments byApril 15, 2015, for terrestrial species undergoing normal consultationsand byOctober 15, 2015, for terrestrial species undergoing extended consultations.For a description of the consultation paths these species will undergo, please see:Species at Risk Public Registry website