Formally described by Gmelin (Gmelin 1789) and first depicted in Pennant 1785, the Labrador Duck has the dubious distinction of being the first species among endemic North American birds to go extinct. The last individual collected in Canada was shot by Simon Cheney in April 1871 at Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick (Phillips 1926a, Montevecchi and Tuck 1987). The last authenticated specimen was shot in the United States off Long Island, New York, by J. G. Bell in the autumn of 1875 (Dutcher 1894, Phillips 1926a).
Few ornithologists were making detailed field observations when the Labrador Duck was extant. Its breeding areas were remote, and numbers apparently fell so quickly that few noted the decline. Our understanding of its natural history is extremely limited, confined almost entirely to its wintering habits.
The scant literature on this species provides many opportunities for confusion. The term “Labrador Duck” was used, at least in Europe, to describe a variety of domestic duck (M. Sassi in Hahn 1963). The vernacular “Pied Duck” used for this species has apparently also been applied to the Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata; T. I. Egan in Dutcher 1891) and the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), and “pied bird” to the American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus; Todd 1963a); some early authors did not specify the species to which they were referring.
The genus name refers to this duck's flexible lateral bill-flaps, the species name to its supposed breeding ground. It is not certain, however, if the species ever bred in the region now known as Labrador, or the portion of Quebéc formerly known by that name.
In this account, every effort has been made to distinguish among reliable observation, hearsay evidence, and conjecture. Even so, the reader should use this information with caution. Our ignorance of the Labrador Duck far exceeds our understanding. Where no information is available, comparisons to the natural history of eiders (Somateria sp.) and scoters (Melanitta sp.) may be the most reliable option.