Cold northern waters around the globe are home to one of the most distinctive of all waterfowl, the Long-tailed Duck. This beautiful diver breeds on Arctic tundra across North America, Europe, and Asia, and it winters along coastlines and on some of the largest lakes.
In North America, the breeding range takes in most of Alaska and much of northern Canada, including the islands of the Canadian High Arctic. Winter finds the Long-tailed Duck mostly in coastal waters from the southern Bering Sea and the Aleutians south to Washington and from eastern Canada south to the Mid-Atlantic states. Large numbers also spend the season on Lake Ontario and elsewhere on northern parts of the Great Lakes.
Although the biggest flocks keep to northern latitudes, a few scattered strays are found much farther south — along the coasts of southern California, Texas, and Florida, and on lakes throughout the U.S. interior. Since wanderers have even reached Hawaii, this is a bird to watch for in all 50 states.
This is one of the most vocal of all ducks. A flock provides a spectacle — visually and aurally. The pale females and dark-and-white males make for a stunning show, and the scene is punctuated almost constantly by a musical, yelping yow-owdle-ow. The rate of calling seems to peak in spring, but it can be heard at most times of year. Really large concentrations of Long-tailed Ducks may be audible from almost a mile away.
Along the coast in winter, Long-tailed Ducks tend to stay within a few miles of land or in the relatively shallow waters above offshore shoals. However, they can dive far below the surface. Depths of more than 70 feet have been documented in Europe, and anecdotal evidence from the Great Lakes suggests they can dive 200 feet, so they might be the deepest divers of all ducks.
Their diving abilities allow them to exploit a wide variety of food items available underwater. They tend to focus on whatever food is locally abundant at a given season, in either saltwater or fresh: small crustaceans such as amphipods, crabs, and sand shrimp; mollusks such as snails, clams, and mussels; larvae of midges, caddisflies, and other insects; various small fishes; eelgrass and other plants. In fact, they’re considered to have one of the most varied diets among ducks.
One more point in the Long-tailed Duck’s catalog of unique traits: It has an unusual sequence of plumages. Most ducks molt into their brightest plumage in fall and wear it until early summer. Think about a familiar species like a male Northern Pintail or Wood Duck — they wear the same bright, beautiful patterns in early June that they showed in December. Long-tailed Ducks migrate south in fall in bright winter plumage, but they molt again in spring, so on the breeding grounds they look distinctly different from their winter garb. As long as birders keep this in mind, we can avoid being confused by molting individuals in early spring.
Key field marks
- Rounded head and short, stubby bill
- Male has pink band across black bill
- Body mostly white in winter male, pale brown in winter female
- Lower chest dark in all plumages
- Wings solidly dark
- Elongated central tail feathers, most pronounced on male
What to look and listen for
Size and shape. A relatively small diving duck with a short bill and steep forehead. Long central tail feathers conspicuous on male.
Face. Complex and distinctive face pattern at all seasons, with males and females both showing changes between winter and summer plumages.
Body plumage. Dark lower chest and white belly in all plumages; upperparts vary from mostly white to entirely dark.
Wings. Solidly dark above and below, without white markings, contrasting with pale body plumage in flight.
Voice. Lone birds often silent, but in flocks, males frequently give a far-carrying, musical, yelping call that could be written as yow-owdle-ow.
Lacking the male’s extreme central tail feathers and stunning pattern, the female provides a better illustration of the overall character of the Long-tailed Duck. This is a relatively small species, smaller than most sea ducks such as scoters, eiders, or goldeneyes (although Bufflehead and Harlequin Duck can be smaller). It has a noticeably short, thick bill. On adults, and on young birds more than a few months old, bill color differs by sex: Males have a band of pink across the blackish bill, while on females, the dark gray bill often has a distinct blue band. Winter females typically show a white face, with dark on the crown and a variable dark spot on the side of the neck.
Female Long-tailed Ducks in winter are variable in appearance. Some have well-defined head patterns, but others, like the bird in this photo, are much less distinct, and their lack of strong markings can be confusing. Individuals that show up south of the normal range, or far inland, are often of these more obscure types. In identifying any odd duck out of range, of course, we always must consider the possibility of domestic hybrids, but such birds are unlikely to match the Long-tailed Duck’s small size and distinctive head and bill shape. No wild ducks are normally similar, but it’s worthwhile to consider other, unrelated, pale swimming birds, such as Black Guillemot in winter plumage.
In most duck species, the adult males wear the same bright color pattern from fall to early summer, not showing any obvious molt in spring. Only young males might show patchy or intermediate plumages at that season. But Long-tailed Ducks have a different seasonal sequence, changing from winter to summer feathering during spring. Some experts claim this species has three distinct plumages per year, but for purposes of identifying males in the field, there are just the bold summer and winter patterns and transitions between them. This March male shows an example of an intermediate look. It might be confusing if seen alone, but attention to overall shape, bill shape, and elements of pattern will clinch the ID.
Long-tailed Ducks usually travel in small groups, in swift flight low over the water, often veering from side to side or rising and falling in unison. Their wingbeats are distinctive, raising the wings barely above horizontal on the upstroke but bringing them far down below the body on each beat, and this can be seen from quite far away if we’re watching for it. A notable field mark is the fact that the wings are solidly dark above and below, without any white markings. On this portrait in bright sunlight, we can see the distinct feather groups, but at a distance in the field, the wings just look unmarked blackish, contrasting with pale areas on the body plumage.
While male ducks of most species wear a brightly patterned plumage for most of the year, shifting to a dull “eclipse” plumage in late summer, adult male Long-tailed Ducks have two equally striking patterns for winter and early summer. It would be fair to say that they are unmistakable at both seasons, as no other bird really looks similar. Their molt into the summer plumage often begins before they leave the wintering grounds, and it may finish after they reach the Arctic in late spring. Before mid-summer, when females are incubating, males leave the nesting territory. They may fly long distances to coastal lagoons, where they will stay while they molt again in late summer.
As with the male, the female Long-tailed Duck molts to a darker plumage before the nesting season. This overall brown look makes for good camouflage on the tundra, which is important, as the female takes all responsibility for incubating the eggs and tending to the hatchlings. The female normally lays a clutch of six to nine eggs, but on Arctic ponds in summer, it is common to see one female tending a brood of more than a dozen ducklings or to see two or three females tending more than 20 ducklings, as separate broods often join together. Full-grown juveniles look similar to summer adult females but with paler, more blended markings on the head.
What’s in a name
Look in a bird book published in North America before 2000, and you’ll find this duck under a very different name: Oldsquaw.
In retrospect, it’s shocking that this name was in use for so long — it’s sexist, racist, and ageist. The name was applied originally because these ducks are so vocal, and someone (probably a young white guy) thought they sounded like a group of elderly “squaws,” an offensive slang term for Native American women.
In the early 1800s, pioneers like Audubon and Alexander Wilson referred to this species as Long-tailed Duck, although Audubon mentioned that it had nicknames like “Old Wife” and “Old Squaw.” But by 1886, when the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) published its first checklist, the name “Old-squaw” was official, and it would continue in use for another 114 years.
The AOU’s checklist committee was asked to change the name in the 1990s, but it refused at first to make a change purely for reasons of “political correctness.” The committee finally relented in response to biologists in Alaska who were working with Native American communities on conservation of the species. So, in 2000, it finally became Long-tailed Duck again, a better name, already in use everywhere else in the world.
By the way, regarding the sexist assumption in the previous name — male ducks make most of the noise; females are much quieter
This article was first published in the November/December 2021 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.