The Labrador duck was a small, diving duck native to the eastern coast of North America.
It was a migratory species, breeding in the coastal regions of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada and wintering along the Atlantic coast as far south as North Carolina. The duck was named for the Labrador Peninsula, where it was commonly found.
Unfortunately, the Labrador duck is now extinct, with the last recorded sighting in 1878 in Elmira, New York. One specimen that was shot in Long Island is now preserved in the United States National Museum.
The exact cause of the bird’s extinction is unknown. It was already a rare duck before the European settlers arrived on the North American continent. It is believed to have been due to habitat destruction, overhunting, and the introduction of non-native predators.
The Labrador duck was a sea duck, also known as the pied duck and skunk duck, and was so named due to the male’s distinctive white and black piebald coloring, which was shared with other species such as the surf scoter and common goldeneye.
This has caused confusion in interpreting old records of these species, as “pied duck” refers to various birds with similar coloring.
The Labrador duck was also known as the sand shoal duck due to its habit of feeding in shallow water.
Despite its various common names, the closest evolutionary relatives of the Labrador duck are thought to be the scoters of the genus Melanitta.
For several reasons, Labrador ducks are considered the most enigmatic of all North American birds.
Firstly, they are extinct, with the last confirmed sighting occurring in 1878. This means that there is very little information available about the species, and what we do know comes from a small number of specimen specimens and historical accounts.
Additionally, the Labrador duck had a very limited range, primarily in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
Alexander Wilson noted in 1829 — “This is rather a scarce species on our coasts, and is never met with on fresh water lakes or rivers.”
The factors mentioned above, combined with the fact that it was a relatively rare and elusive species, made it difficult for ornithologists and naturalists to study and observe the species.
The Labrador duck was a small, stocky bird with an oblong head and small, beady eyes. Its bill was almost as long as its head, and had short, strong feet positioned far behind its body. The body itself was short and depressed, with small feathers and a short, rounded brownish black tail.
Owing to its unusual bill morphology, it was often considered an ecological counterpart of the Pacific Steller’s eider and the completely unrelated Australian Pink-eared Duck , which feeds largely on mollusks and plankton.
Its appearance was similar to the Blue Duck in terms of outward appearance.
The female Labrador duck was grey, with weakly patterned plumage similar to that of a scoter.
On the other hand, the male had a striking black and white plumage reminiscent of an eider. However, the male’s wings were entirely white, except for the primaries.
Habitat & Range
Before it became extinct, the Labrador duck was primarily found along the Atlantic coast of North America. It occurred in the eastern United States, including New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia, coastal Labrador, in Northern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
Its habitat included coastal marshes, estuaries, and other areas near the ocean, where it fed on small mollusks and other invertebrates.
The Labrador duck was known to breed in small colonies and nest in grassy areas near the water. Several deserted nests were placed on the top of the low tangled fir-bushes.
In the winter, this North American bird migrated south from Nova Scotia to protected coastal waters of the Chesapeake Bay and to New England.
Feeding Habits & Diet
The flattened tip with numerous lamellae and odd bill shape suggests that the Labrador duck primarily ate small mollusks, crustaceans, marine worms, and aquatic plants by foraging in shallow coastal waters. It could dive underwater in its winter quarters to find food.
Like most ducks, its bill allowed it to reach into the mud and sand for prey easily, and it could also use it to extract small fish from crevices among rocks and vegetation.
This duck had a specialized diet of snails, especially blue mussels, which it swallowed whole due to its large esophagus. It also ate insects such as beetles, ants, grasshoppers, and caterpillars, which it caught by hovering over vegetation and snapping them up with its beak.
It is believed that the Labrador duck shared the same feeding habit as the common eider.
Nesting & Mating Habits
Even though there are 55 specimens of the Labrador duck preserved in museum collections worldwide, their breeding and nesting habits remain largely unknown.
The exact cause of the Labrador duck’s extinction is unknown, but several theories have been proposed to explain the bird’s disappearance.
- Habitat destruction: One theory is that human development and agricultural expansion destroyed the bird’s habitat. The Labrador duck was a coastal bird often found near the shores of lakes, rivers, and bays. As human populations grew and industrialization expanded, these areas and coastal ecosystems were increasingly developed, which may have contributed to the loss of habitat for the Labrador duck.
- Hunting: Another theory is that the Labrador duck was hunted for its feathers, which were used to make hats. The bird was considered a fashionable accessory in the 19th century, and its feathers were in high demand. This demand may have led to the overhunting of the Labrador duck. The feather trade may have contributed to its decline.The bird was not hunted for its meat which was known to taste bad and rot quickly.
- Introduction of non-native species: A third theory is that the Labrador duck was affected by introducing non-native species, such as rats, which may have competed with the bird for food or preyed upon its eggs. Introducing these species may have disrupted the Labrador duck’s ecosystem and contributed to its decline.
- Decline of food sources. The Labrador duck fed on mussels and other shellfish. As the human population and industries grew along the eastern coast, there were shortages of the duck’s main food sources. Although all sea ducks readily feed on shallow-water mollusks, no Western Atlantic bird species appears to be as reliant on such food as the Labrador Duck.
Overall, it is likely that a combination of these factors contributed to the extinction of the Labrador duck. The loss of habitat and breeding area, overhunting and increased human influence may have played a particularly significant role in the bird’s demise.
- The Labrador duck was a small, diving duck with a limited range to the American coast of the North Atlantic.
- It was a migratory species, breeding in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada and wintering along the Atlantic coast as far south as North Carolina.
- There are 55 museum specimens of the Labrador duck worldwide.
- The male had distinctive white and black piebald coloring, while the female had gray plumage.
- The duck’s habitat included coastal marshes, estuaries, and other areas near the ocean, where it fed on small mollusks and other invertebrates.
- The Labrador duck went extinct in the late nineteenth century.