Thursday, January 26, 2017

Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius

Labrador Duck [John Gerrard Keulemans Illustration]
The Labrador Duck is a little known extinct duck from our part of North America.  It was an uncommon duck when the first settlers came to northeastern North America.  It became rare in the 1850s to 1870s and was extinct by 1878.  It was also known as the Pied Duck or the Sand Shoal Duck.  Some locals called it the Skunk Duck but that term also included the Surf Scoters and Common Goldeneyes.

Labrador Duck [Painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes]
The life history of the Labrador Duck is not well known.  Much of our information is assumed by extrapolation from other duck life histories.  That is unfortunate because our population was 'young' as a nation and uninformed and facts were not gathered and we were not aware that this species needed protection.

Labrador Duck [John James Audubon Painting]
From what we know or have assumed, the Labrador Duck lived in northeastern North America only.  It bred along the coast of Labrador and along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  It wintered along the coast of the Maritime Provinces and down the eastern seaboard of the US as far south as  New Jersey and Chesapeake Bay.

Although the breeding biology of this species is unknown it probably nested on rocky cliffs or on islands.  It fed on molluscs, shellfish and seaweeds.  It preferred sandy shoals where it used its long, wide bill to glean food.  I picture its feeding behaviour as similar to our Harlequin Ducks.  Its common name tells us it preferred shallow water.

Labrador Duck - Male
The Labrador Duck was beautiful.  As seen above, the male was pied, black and white.  Its head was long and the bill was almost as long as the head.  Its eyes were small (this may be a taxidermy specimen error).  It was certainly adept at life in the surf.  Its bill was unique, long and wide and 'soft' with lamellae for sifting out food.

Labrador Duck - Female
The female was very gray overall.  We don't know a lot about the juveniles.  The Fuertes painting shown above shows a young male which is quite gray with white starting to show on the head.  The wings of the males were unique with an all-white wing except for the primaries.  They must have been beautiful in flight!

There are 54 (or 55 according to Chilton 2009) specimens existing, scattered throughout the world from museums, private collections and even in the possession of Sheik Saud of Qatar.  They have been sold, traded, looted, fraudulently copied, and narrowly escaped destruction in world wars.  Fortunately some good specimens still exist.  We have one specimen in Canada at the Redpath Museum in Montreal.  The US has specimens at Harvard and the Smithsonian.  They can also be found in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and other places.

Audubon was in Labrador in July, 1833 and could not find the Labrador Duck.  He lists a breeding site, his son having found possible nests.  This was circumstantial evidence only and is generally not accepted.  One would assume that if the duck were there Audubon would have found it.  In 1840 Audubon wrote that the flight of the duck was swift and its wings emitted a whistling sound.  In 1891 S.F. Cheney of Grand Manan wrote that the Labrador Duck he had shot sometime in the past had small shells in its crop and it was accompanied by long-tailed ducks.

The Labrador Duck is our most mysterious duck.  Why did it go extinct, especially since it was scarce when the white man first came here?  No one really knows.  It doesn't seem to be because of environmental causes. Some think it was not from market hunting because it apparently was not a good-tasting duck and was not popular in the markets.  It was not often seen in the markets probably because it was rare.  I think it went extinct  because of a combination of factors.  I think market hunting did have an affect.  Any amount on a rare species would have an impact.  I think the other reason was the same reason the Great Auk went extinct - nest destruction.  I think the native people, seafarers, and other predators extensively robbed nests of eggs and the birds were constantly on the decline.  I expect this species could not readapt to new breeding sites where they were safe from predation.

The first depiction of a Labrador Duck was a drawing done in 1792.  Once its presence became known, collectors were on its trail.  It took less than 100 years for it to meet its demise.  A sad testament to a beautiful species and a regrettable step for humankind.


Bent, A.C. 1925. Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl Part Two.  Dover Publications.
Chilton, Glen 2009. The Curse of the Labrador Duck.  HarperCollins.

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