Bird Lore: Long-tailed Duck

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Long-tailed Duck (winter male)
Long-tailed Duck (winter male). (Photo by Blair Bernson)

The Long-tailed Duck is a sea duck of winter in Western Washington. It can be seen along the Edmonds waterfront, usually as a single bird, from mid-October through April. It is not, however, a frequent sighting in the Edmonds near shore waters. It takes a lot of careful watching to find one.

The common name of this species outside of North America was Long-tailed Duck. In North America an early ornithologist gave it the unfortunate common name of Oldsquaw because this sociable and excitable duck reminded them of “old squaws” gossiping. Requests for a change to the common name in use in the rest of the world were rejected several times by the American Ornithologists’ Union. In 2000 it considered and finally approved a name change request from U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists who were dealing with declining populations of this species in Alaska. A conservation management plan required the help and cooperation of Alaska Natives. The biologists were concerned about offending the very people whose assistance they needed. The irony of the former common name is that the males actually vocalize much more than do the hens.

At sea, the Long-tailed Duck feeds mainly on mollusks such as mussels, clams, and periwinkles. It also eats crustaceans and some small fish. On its breeding territory it eats mostly aquatic insects but supplements its diet with some crustaceans, mollusks, fish eggs, and plant materials. It forages by diving and swimming under water. Although it feeds mostly within 30 feet of the surface, it is one of the deepest diving ducks because it can forage at a depth of 200 feet. This three-minute video follows a male diving and swimming under water while it forages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQxtr3AMbw4.

The Long-tailed Duck is a circumpolar bird. In North America it breeds in Alaska and northern Canada. It is two years of age when it first breeds. Courtship displays begin in early winter but most pairs form in early spring. A male’s courtship display includes shaking its head back and forth, raising its long tail in the air, and tossing its head back with the bill pointed upward while calling.

Long-taied duck female
Long-tailed Duck (winter female). (Photo by Carol Riddell)

The nest site is on dry ground close to water. The nest, partly hidden under low growth or among rocks, is a depression lined with available plant materials and down. The female incubates her 6-8 eggs for a period of 24-29 days. When she needs to leave the nest, she covers the eggs with down. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching. They can swim and dive when they are still small. The young feed themselves but the female tends them. Age at first flight is about 35-40 days.

The oldest recorded Long-tailed Duck was a female. She was at least 17 years and one month of age when she was found in Alaska, the same state in which she had been banded. There are many collective nouns for any group of ducks, including brace, flush, paddling, raft, and team.

The conservation assessment of the Long-tailed Duck is that it is a common bird in steep decline. Population trends are difficult to assess because most of these ducks winter far offshore in northern waters such as the Bering Sea. Although the Long-tailed Duck is not widely hunted, tens of thousands were killed in the 1950s by entanglement in fishing nets.

Calls from a flock of about thirty Long-tailed Ducks can be heard here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/203475.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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