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How the Harlequin Duck Lost His Life

JAG NM EclipseThe title of this post is meant to mark it as the less cheery companion to the May 2012 Birding magazine article, “How the Harlequin Duck Got His Spots.” That article, if you haven’t yet read it, is a really wonderful piece of birder ornithology, the work of passionate amateurs that measurably advances our understanding of the processes behind the creation of one of Nature’s masterpieces: the gaudy, gorgeous plumage of drake Harlequin Ducks.

Built around a series of ten photos by Paul Higgins and text by Keith Evans that follows a hatch year male Harlequin over a pivotal 2 months in his life, during which he goes from looking very much like his Mom to very much like his Dad. The first and last shots in that sequence are shown below. (Note: Higgins’ photos are much better looking in the magazine than they are in the crummy scans I did for this post.)

HADU for blog.001

This insight was possible for two main reasons. One, there were some birders who were interested enough to watch and photograph this bird (actually, there were 3 Harlequins present, but the article focuses on Harley One, as they called him) over several months. Two, there were confiding Harlequin Ducks hanging out in an accessible location that could be easily revisited, in this case the Antelope Island causeway just north of Salt Lake City, Utah.


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The story takes what many, but not all, will consider a darker turn from here.

I will leave it to those who know the particulars better than I to fill in more detail but the gist of it is this: not long after that last November 25 photo was taken, the Harlequin Ducks were shot and killed by a hunter or hunters. That’s how Harley One, so soon after getting his spots, lost his life.

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning in framing what I hope will be a productive discussion in the comments section. It was legal for the hunter(s) to shoot Harlequin Ducks, unquestionably. Though many birders in areas where Harlequin Ducks are rare might find the thought of Harley hunting foreign, even a bit hard to picture, a quick Google image search on Harlequin Duck Hunting will return plenty of evidence that it does occur.

Further, it was apparently legal for the birds to be shot from Antelope Island causeway, though, again, that might come as a surprise to many, given that it is a fairly heavily trafficked road just outside a major metropolitan area.

Finally, there is at least suspicion, and again I hope those closer to the events will chime in, that the hunters heard of the ducks’ presence on the causeway by reading a birding e-mail list. I would like to have this assertion definitively proved or disproved, but such may not be possible.

Here are a few points I’d like us to discuss, for starters:

1. Though I find that bird hunters and birders generally want the same basic thing, good bird populations and habitat, this is a case where the interests of a very few hunters completely trumped the interests of a much larger number of birders. (Or maybe I’ve got that wrong—maybe the interests of the entire hunting community were served by just one or two individuals getting to shoot those ducks? It’s important to get the questions right if we’re to have any hope of finding good answers.) What, if anything, are we to do about this, to lessen the chances that it happens again?

2. What, if any, legal or ethical restrictions are there or ought there be on those who would harvest, for science or for sport, wild birds that are likely to be seen, enjoyed, and even studied by many more people, if they are left alive?

3. What, if any, restrictions should we place on the sharing of bird locations among our community, knowing that such information may from time to time result in harm coming to those birds, whether from birders, photographers, hunters, or ornithologists?

4. How would you like to see the American Birding Association respond to situations like this? How should our Code of Ethics be revised or appended to address them?

5. This winter, quite a few people got very, very upset at the actions of photographers flushing Snowy Owls in attempts to photograph them. How is this incident the same or different, worse or better?

Hunters and hunting, and their relationships to birders, birding, and conservation is certainly one of those topics that can generate more heat than light. Though I’m not asking anyone to pull any punches, I do ask that commenters keep their tone civil and respectful. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

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Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association. There's very little about birds, birding, and birders that he doesn't find fascinating, though he's especially interested in birding culture and the many ways we all communicate our passion for birds, including this Blog.
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