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Histrionicus histrionicus

November 5, 2013

Beloved birders! In my rush of overthinking the meaning of biding and life, or the way the two overlap for me these days, or whatever it was I couldn’t stop pondering in my slightly frantic previous post, I think I might have neglected to dwell sufficiently on the inherent awesomeness of the Harlequin Duck! Not only is the duck an aesthetic thing of wonder, but its Latin binomial only makes the whole experience even more pleasurable. How often do you meet a bird called Histrionicus histrionicus?

A pack of beauties. Photo from here.

A pack of beauties. Photo from here. Yes, the pic comes from a hunting site. But please don’t shoot the Harlequins! Seriously — go for a Mallard if you’re so inclined. And please hunt safely! (end of hunting rant; I’m not opposed to hunting per se, but would much rather see ducks through my binoculars; that said, I hear Zeiss makes a mean hunting scope; end of nonsequitur, I promise)

In fact, the Harlequin duck happens to be the only species in the Histrionicus genus. For the record, the name comes from the Latin word for actor: histrio (3rd declension, masculine, for those who are curious). I suppose one could have called the Histrionicus histrionicus the Player Duck, but Harlequin is much more evocative — in honor of Arlecchino (Harlequin), a stock character — the nimble, clown-like, comic servant — from the Commedia dell’Arte.

In any event, they are spectacular, almost as if costumed and ready to perform. The spectacle I witnessed on Saturday was a solo show where the duck glided along the water, confidently, with a slight hint of superiority. In the company of Scaup, Gadwalls, Mallards, and even an American Widgeon, the Histrionicus histrionicus knows exactly whom the folks with binoculars are admiring. He’s seen himself in the mirror, I have no doubt. He knows that he resembles a hand-painted porcelain masterpiece, almost too lovely to be true. Second only to the transcendent Wood Duck (though the Harlequin sure wins the most evocative-sounding-Latin-binomial race), the Harlequin duck is otherwordly.

Definitely worth the two-year wait. And after the magnificent duck, I went to hear the (almost) equally radiant and fabulous Meg Wolitzer read at IFOA. She read from The Interestings (by far the best novel I’ve read this year) and talked about writing with great warmth, wit, charm, and the entire day was a delight. So if you haven’t read The Interestings, do it now! A novel about talent (and what happens to it over time), friendship, envy, and how humans crave feeling noticed and special. What struck me about the novel was the compassion and warmth (and humor!!) with which she wrote her characters. If Histrionicus histrionicus were an adjective — or better yet, a superlative, I’d use it to describe Wolitzer’s novel. A remarkable feat of a book.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2013 8:40 pm

    They are gorgeous ducks. I’d love to see one up close…the only two I’ve seen have been in Ottawa, way out in the rapids in the middle of the Ottawa River.

    • November 5, 2013 9:12 pm

      We got lucky; this one was *in* Toronto and really close to shore! It sure was a treat.

      • November 5, 2013 9:14 pm

        Yes, I’ve heard they often spend the winter in T.O. and have seen some of the photos posted on various forums. I’m jealous!

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