The Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius) was a striking black and white eider-like sea duck that was never common, and is believed to be the first bird to become extinct in North America after 1500. The last Labrador Duck is believed to have been seen at Elmira, New York on December 12, 1878; the last preserved specimen was shot in 1875 on Long Island. It was thought to breed in Labrador, and it wintered from Nova Scotia to as far south as Chesapeake Bay.
The Labrador Duck migrated annually, wintering off the coasts of New Jersey and New England—where it favoured southern sandy coasts, bays, and inlets—and breeding in Labrador in the summer. John James Audubon's son reported seeing a nest belonging to the species in Labrador, but it is uncertain where it bred. Some believe that it may have laid its eggs in the islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
The Labrador Duck was also known as a Pied Duck, a vernacular name that it shared with the Surf Scoter and the Common Goldeneye (and even the American Oystercatcher), a fact that has led to difficulties in interpreting old records of these species, and also as Skunk Duck. Both names refer to the male's striking white/black piebald coloration. Yet another common name was Sand Shoal Duck, referring to its habit of feeding in shallow water. The closest evolutionary relatives of the Labrador Duck are apparently the scoters (Melanitta).
The Labrador Duck fed on small molluscs, and some fishermen reported catching it on fishing lines baited with mussels. The structure of the bill was highly modified from that of most ducks, having a wide, flattened tip with numerous lamellae inside. In this way it is considered an ecological counterpart of the North Pacific/North Asian Steller's Eider. The beak was also particularly soft, and may have been used to probe through sediment for food.
Another, completely unrelated, duck with similar (but even more specialized) bill morphology is the Australian Pink-eared Duck, which feeds largely on plankton, but also mollusks; the condition in the Labrador Duck probably resembled that in the Blue Duck most in outward appearance.
It is thought that the Labrador Duck was always rare, but between 1850 and 1870, populations waned further. Its extinction is still not fully explained. Although hunted for food, this duck was considered to taste bad, would rot quickly and fetched a low price. Consequently, it was not sought much by hunters. However, it is thought that the eggs may have been over-harvested, and it may have been subject to depredations by the feather trade in its breeding area as well. Another possible factor in the bird's extinction was the decline in mussels and other shellfish on which they are believed to have fed in their winter quarters, due to growth of population and industry on the Eastern Seaboard. Although all sea ducks readily feed on shallow-water molluscs, no Western Atlantic bird species seems to have been as dependent on such food as much as the Labrador Duck.
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- BirdLife International (2004). Camptorhynchus labradorius. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 10 May 2006. Database entry includes justification for why this species is listed as extinct
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