Blue ducks, clowns, sea mice, and squeakers are some of the nicknames given to the harlequin duck. Regardless of what you call them, harlequins are one of the most beautiful, most interesting, and least understood waterfowl species. They are, by every sense of the phrase, a “trophy bird” for serious waterfowl hunters. But few will ever come across a harlie in the field due to their remote locations and strict hunting regulations.

In 2022, Washington State completely closed harlequin hunting in response to increased pressure that was unsustainable. Now, Alaska remains one of the only locations where hunters can consistently harvest a blue duck. This makes the harlequin one of the hardest birds to hunt for those in pursuit of harvesting all of the North American waterfowl species. Besides the challenge of successfully taking a harlie, their gorgeous plumage is what draws hunters from all around the world to remote locations. Here’s everything else you need to know about the beautiful harlequin duck.

Appearance and Vocalization

Like most female ducks, the hen harlequin has a collection of browns and olive-browns, with a speckled white chest, stiff black tail feathers, a white face patch ahead of the eye, a roundish white patch behind the eye, and a stubby albeit heavy bill. They’re also small, similar in size to a blue-wing teal, tipping the scales at just over one pound.

If you were to mix a kaleidoscope with a box of Crayola crayons, you might end up with something that resembles a drake harlequin. Simply put, they’re a gorgeous bird. Overall, the drakes feature a soft slate blue color with chestnut red sides. A white facial patch in front of the eye runs upward overtop the head, bordered by black and the same chestnut striping. A white semi-collar runs along the sides of the neck but doesn’t fully connect. They also have a thin white “shoulder” stripe that is outlined in black. The drake shares the hen’s stiff dark tail, while his wings are a dark brown with blue iridescent highlights and white stripes near the body. They’re slightly bigger than the hens, weighing just under one and one-half pounds.

Harlequins are a surprisingly vocal duck, with a repertoire of high-pitched mouse-like squeaks—hence the moniker sea-mice—and fast-paced whistling peeps that are short, but machine gun quick. Some describe the sound as a staccato whine. 

a drake harlequin in flight
The drake harlequin features an impressive combination of colors, including a chestnut red on the sides. jgorzynik/Adobe Stock


Unlike mallard hens that prefer to nest in knee-high sheltering grass, harlequin hens nest along turbulent mountain streams and rivers. Here, and throughout the spring and summer, both drakes and hens seem quite content in the whitewater. They forage, swim, and even walk on the bottom of rivers and bays in search of aquatic insects like caddisfly larvae, hellgrammites, and dragonfly nymphs, as well as the occasional vegetative material.

Harlequins winter in coastal saltwater environments, typically in shallow (less than 25 feet) water depths and rocky (wave-washed cobblestone) shorelines. As documented by the Sea Duck Joint Venture—a group formed in 1999 as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP)—blue ducks are “relatively tame, use near-shore habitats, and have high site-fidelity,” thus making them extremely vulnerable to hunting.

four drake harlequin ducks on rocks
Harlequins often winter along rocky coastal shorelines. rhfletcher

Distribution and Population Statistics

Though harlequins are thought of as a bird of the West Coast, there are two distinct and quite separate populations of blue ducks in the U.S. and Canada. The better-known western population makes its home from roughly the Rocky Mountains, including the Canadian Rockies, westward to the Pacific, and wintering from the Aleutian Islands south to Oregon.

The eastern population, the bulk of which inhabits a region from Quebec and Labrador south to Newfoundland and New Brunswick, is further segmented into two groups based on where each winter. One group winters in southwestern (coastal) Greenland, and the other in the Maritimes and New England states, primarily the Penobscot and Jericho bays of Maine.

For many years, Washington was the only state in the Lower 48 where hunters could reliably harvest harlequins. Today, as it’s been since the 2022 season, this is no longer an option. Waterfowl biologists determined that blue duck populations have, due to a dramatic increase in harvest, dropped to levels that cannot, if the harvest were to continue, be sustainable for the future.

At one time, Washington hunters could harvest seven harlequins daily. This dropped to one daily and then to one per year until 2022, when the taking of blue ducks in Washington was closed entirely. It’s interesting to note that while harlequins are off-limits in Washington, the birds are categorized simply as ducks in the states of Oregon and California and, therefore, can be harvested. However, it is very rare to kill a harlie in those areas.

But there are still opportunities for those wishing to check a harlequin off their bucket list in Alaska. For those hunting The Last Frontier as non-residents, it’s legal to take four (4) harlequins per season. Though a DIY hunt in Alaska for non-residents is certainly possible, most, if not all, harlequin seekers employ the services of an outfitter who can not only point the harlie hopefuls in the right direction but possess all the gear necessary to hunt Alaska’s saltwater both safely and successfully.

a drake harlequin in a hunters hand
Field & Stream Editor-in-Chief Colin Kearns holds up a Drake harlequin he took in Alaska. Colin Kearns

Hunting Methods

Successfully hunting harlequins lies more in the right gear and the location than it does the decoys. As mentioned earlier, blue ducks are terribly site-specific; that is, they have a section of shoreline they prefer, and if one goes there and is patient, the little ducks will be by. However, the trick behind the harvest often lies in a suitable boat, a more-than-capable captain at the helm, the ability to read a tide table, and local knowledge.

Harlequin spreads are incredibly small by comparison to most traditional puddle duck or diver rigs. They usually range from six to 10 or 12 individually rigged and often hand-carved and hand-painted works of art. No calling is needed; however, a sharp eye and/or binoculars will certainly help answer the question of whether or not it is a mature harlequin to take.

As a trophy bird bound for the taxidermy studio, harlequins are best gunned with feather-friendly dense patterns of smaller, non-toxic shot, such as Hevi-Shot’s 2-3/4 inch Hevi-Bismuth 5 or 6 shot.

Everything aside, the most important part about hunting harlequins is getting where you need to be. And where you need to be nowadays to kill a harlequin is Alaska. The little blue duck? He’s a gorgeous bonus to the adventure of a lifetime.