The Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), native to the northeast coast of North America, has been extinct since sometime late in the 19th century, with the last valid sighting being in 1878. Little is known about it, although there are some 55 stuffed specimens of it scattered about the world in various museums. One mystery is the cause of its extinction. All accounts indicate it was already uncommon by the time Europeans arrived in North America, to stay. Its meat was relatively little in demand, due to bad flavor, and reportedly it did not keep well. Certainly such commercial demand that did exist for its meat, feathers, eggs and skins would undoubtedly have been the final cause of its extinction.
But I have a theory. Wherever humans have gone, extinctions occurred. I used to think it would not be possible for the extinction of so many ice-age species in North America to have been caused by the arrival of humans after the last ice age ended. But we now know that humans arrived in the western hemisphere much earlier, perhaps fifteen thousand years ago. We also know that in the absence of humans, many animals, including large ones, simply are not afraid of humans when they arrive.
We can see examples of that, even today, on islands that were historically uninhabited for sure, but even in less frequented continental areas, where foxes or Canada Jays or Boreal Chickadees, to give three examples from my own experience, will act fearlessly in human presence. Urbanites are constantly told not to feed coyotes, or they’ll become used to people and a threat.
The Beothuk people, themselves exterminated, were seal and caribou hunters who once inhabited the area now called Newfoundland and Labrador, thought to be the former breeding grounds of the Labrador Duck (Audubon’s son claimed to have found a nest in Labrador, and probably did.) My theory is that the Labrador Duck was one of a plethora of “ice age fauna” that went extinct as a result of how easily they were killed by humans, having always lived in remote areas. Animals exterminated in North America between the arrival of the first people, and the arrival of Europeans -- horses, elephants, large condors, giant sloths, camels and other species, included ones that were rare when Europeans arrived with their own weaponry. Many that were extirpated or exterminated were from the same region – sea mink, Great Auks, Newfoundland wolves, eastern cougars, eastern elk, Eskimo Curlews (who migrated through the region), even the Atlantic grey whale -- the list is large, and the depletion of native wildlife of the region continues into the present – Canada’s rarest mammal is the northern Atlantic right whale, and of course the collapse of the northwest Atlantic northern cod is recent and well known.
I have researched the species for years, photographed every specimen (and collected photos of every other specimen I could find) and studied renderings of many other artists, most of whom, like me, could only do “best guess” restorations. The painting is about 18 by 24 inches, in oils on a birch wood panel. I am also including a much earlier painting I did of some Labrador Ducks in flight over the Labrador coast at dawn. It was in watercolor's on paper.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731