Glacier National Park Has A 17-Year-Old Harlequin Duck!

This male Harlequin duck in Glacier National Park is 17 years old. NPS photo.

There are young Harlequin ducks, middle-aged Harlequin ducks, old Harlequin ducks, and then the real old Harlequin duck that calls Glacier National Park home.

According to the folks at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, this breed of waterfowl can live to 15 years, which is old for most ducks. And Glacier officials say the oldest known banded Harlequin duck lived to 18 years and 10 months. Which makes a male Harlequin duck living in Glacier in rare company, as it's at least 17 years old, according to its band.

“Prior to these findings, Harlequin ducks were reported to live up to only 10 years of age, which makes this finding a positive indicator of the health and longevity of harlequin breeding populations in Glacier National Park,” said Lisa Bate, the park's biological science technician. “Research indicates Harlequin ducks mate for life unless something happens to one member of the pair. This old male has returned the last three years with the same female.”

In 2011, a study of harlequin ducks on Upper McDonald Creek was initiated by Glacier National Park in cooperation with researchers from the University of Montana. Researchers use radio-telemetry and banding to learn more about the location of harlequin nests and factors affecting offspring survival. Upper McDonald Creek is considered an important breeding stream for harlequin ducks, comprising 25 percent of known broods produced in Montana. The area also has the highest density of breeding harlequins in the lower 48 states. Glacier National Park has approximately 40 pairs of harlequins in the park.

Harlequins are small sea ducks that spend most of their lives along the coastal waters of North America. Male Harlequins are slate blue with bold white, black, and chestnut highlights. They are often referred to as “clown ducks” for their unique coloring and markings. Female Harlequins are brown and gray, which allows them to blend into their surrounding while they sit on their nests for 28 days.

Each spring, Harlequins migrate inland to breed and raise their young along fast-moving, freshwater streams. They are considered to be more strictly confined to running water than any other waterfowl species breeding in the Northern Hemisphere.

Harlequins are slow to mature, sensitive to human disturbance and vulnerable to climate change because they select nest sites close to the water’s edge. Female Harlequins only breed on the streams where they were born, making the integrity of breeding sites especially important to maintain populations. The state of Montana lists Harlequin ducks as a species of special concern.

Visitors are reminded to view all wildlife at a distance and not disturb wildlife in any way. Visitors are also encouraged to report to the park any observance of Harlequin ducks on streams in the park other than Upper McDonald Creek. Park staff can be contacted at 406-888-7800.

While the Harlequin duck study within Glacier will conclude this fall, scientists throughout North America will continue to survey and collect information from banded Harlequins. A University of Montana graduate student is expected to publish a thesis regarding the park study near the end of this year.

This project was funded by the Federal Highway Administration, University of Montana, grants provided through the National Park Service Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, and Glacier National Park Conservancy.