Identify the Long-tailed Duck with these tips

Tips to identify Long-tailed Duck

Cold northern waters around the world are home to one of the most distinctive waterfowl, the Long-tailed Duck. This magnificent diver breeds on arctic tundra in North America, Europe and Asia, and it winters along coasts and on some of the largest lakes.

In North America, the breeding range encompasses most of Alaska and much of northern Canada, including the islands of the Canadian High Arctic. Wintering finds the Long-tailed Duck primarily in coastal waters from the southern Bering Sea and 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 in the northern parts of the Great Lakes.

Although the largest herds remain in northern latitudes, a few scattered strays are found much farther south – along the coasts of southern California, Texas and Florida, and on lakes in the interior of the United States. United. Since vagrants have even reached Hawaii, it’s a bird to watch in all 50 states.

It is one of the loudest ducks. A herd provides a spectacle – visual and auditory. The pale females and black and white males put on a stunning display, and the scene is punctuated almost constantly by a musical, yapping yow-owdle-ow. The call rate seems to peak in the spring, but can be heard most of the year. Very large concentrations of long-tailed ducks can be heard almost a mile away.

Along the coast in winter, Long-tailed Ducks tend to stay a few miles off land or in relatively shallow water above offshore shoals. However, they can dive far below the surface. Depths of over 70 feet have been documented in Europe, and anecdotal evidence from the Great Lakes suggests they can dive to 200 feet, so they may 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 concentrate on locally abundant food in a given season, in salt or fresh water: small crustaceans such as amphipods, crabs and sand shrimp; molluscs such as snails, clams and mussels; the larvae of midges, caddisflies and other insects; various small fish; seagrass and other plants. In fact, they are considered to have one of the most varied diets among ducks.

Another item in the Long-tailed Duck’s catalog of unique characteristics: It has an unusual plumage sequence. Most ducks moult into their brightest plumage in the fall and carry it through to early summer. Think of a familiar species like a male pintail or wood duck – they wear the same bright, beautiful patterns in early June that they showed in December. The long-tailed ducks migrate south in the fall in bright winter plumage, but they moult again in the spring, so that on the breeding grounds they look markedly different from their winter attire. As long as birders keep this in mind, we can avoid confusion by moulting individuals in early spring.

What to watch and listen to

The size and shape. A relatively small diving duck with a short beak and a steep forehead. Long central rectrices clearly visible in the male.
Confront. Complex and distinctive face pattern in all seasons, males and females showing changes between winter and summer plumage.
body plumage. Dark underbreast and white belly in all plumages; the upperparts vary from mostly white to entirely dark.
wings. Solidly dark above and below, without white markings, contrasting with the pale plumage of the body in flight.
Voice. Solitary birds are often silent, but in groups males frequently emit a musical, yapping call that carries far and could be written as yow-owdle-ow.


Listen to Long-tailed Duck calls here.

Long-tailed duck, winter female.  March in Ocean County, New Jersey.  Photo by Brian E. SmallLong-tailed duck, winter female. March in Ocean County, New Jersey. Photo by Brian E. Small

Lacking the extreme central tail feathers of the male and the stunning pattern, the female better exemplifies the general character of the long-tailed duck. It is a relatively small species, smaller than most sea ducks such as scoters, eiders or goldeneyes (although the Bufflehead and Harlequin Duck may be smaller). It has a noticeably short and thick beak. In adults and young birds over a few months old, beak color differs by sex: males have a pink stripe on the blackish beak, while in females the dark gray beak often has a distinct blue stripe . Winter females usually show a white face, with black on the crown and a variable dark patch on the side of the neck.

Long-tailed duck, winter female.  March in Ocean County, New Jersey.  Photo by Brian E. SmallLong-tailed duck, winter female. March in Ocean County, New Jersey. Photo by Brian E. Small

Female Long-tailed Ducks in winter vary 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 appear south of the normal range, or far inland, often belong to these more obscure types. When identifying any odd duck out of range, of course, we must always consider the possibility of domestic hybrids, but such birds are unlikely to match the small size and distinctive shape of the head and from the beak of the long-tailed duck. No wild duck is normally similar, but it is worth considering other pale, unrelated swimming birds, such as Black Guillemot in winter plumage.

Long-tailed Duck, moulting male.  March in Ocean County, New Jersey.  Photo by Brian E. SmallLong-tailed Duck, moulting male. March in Ocean County, New Jersey. Photo by Brian E. Small

In most duck species, adult males bear the same bright color pattern from fall to early summer, showing no obvious molting in spring. Only young males can show patchy or intermediate plumage at this season. But long-tailed ducks have a different seasonal sequence, changing from winter plumage to summer plumage in spring. Some experts claim that this species has three distinct plumages per year, but to identify males in the field there are only the bold summer and winter patterns and the transitions between them. This male from March shows an example of intermediate aspect. It can be confusing when viewed alone, but attention to general shape, beak shape, and pattern elements will determine identification.

Long-tailed duck, winter female.  March in Ocean County, New Jersey.  Photo by Brian E. Small Long-tailed duck, winter female. March in Ocean County, New Jersey. Photo by Brian E. Small

Long-tailed ducks typically travel in small groups, in rapid flight over water, often veering from side to side or rising and falling in unison. Their wing beats are distinctive, raising the wings barely above horizontal on the upstroke but dropping them well below the body with each beat, and this can be seen from quite a distance if we watch it . A noticeable terrain mark is the fact that the fenders are solidly dark above and below, with no white markings whatsoever. In this portrait in full sun, the distinct feather clusters can be seen, but from a distance in the field, the wings appear just blackish, contrasting with the pale areas on the body plumage.

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Long-tailed duck, summer male.  June in Utqiagvik, Alaska.  Photo by Brian E. SmallLong-tailed duck, summer male. June in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Photo by Brian E. Small

While male ducks of most species wear brightly patterned plumage for most of the year, changing to dull “eclipsed” plumage in late summer, adult male long-tailed ducks have two equally striking designs for winter and early summer. It would be fair to say that they are unmistakable in both seasons, as no other bird is quite alike. Their moult into summer plumage often begins before they leave the wintering grounds and may end after reaching the Arctic in late spring. Before midsummer, when the females brood, the males leave the nesting territory. They can fly long distances to coastal lagoons, where they will remain while they moult again in late summer.

Long-tailed duck, summer female.  June in Utqiagvik, Alaska.  Photo by Brian E. SmallLong-tailed duck, summer female. June in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Photo by Brian E. Small

As with the male, the female Long-tailed Duck moults into darker plumage before the nesting season. This general brown appearance allows for good camouflage in the tundra, which is important, as the female takes full responsibility for incubating the eggs and caring for the hatchlings. The female normally lays a clutch of six to nine eggs, but in arctic ponds in the summer it is common to see one female tending a clutch of over a dozen ducklings or to see two or three females s take care of more than 20 ducklings, separately. broods often join together. Adult juveniles resemble summer adult females, but with paler, more mixed markings on the head.

what’s in a name

Look in any 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 has been around for so long – it’s sexist, racist and ageist. The name was originally applied because these ducks are so vocal, and someone (probably a young white man) 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 called this species the long-tailed duck, although Audubon mentioned that it had nicknames like “Old Wife” and “Old Squaw”. But in 1886, when the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) published its first checklist, the name “Old-squaw” was official, and it would continue to be used for another 114 years.

The AOU’s Checklist Committee was asked to change its name in the 1990s, but initially refused to make a change solely on the grounds of “political correctness”. The committee eventually relented in response to Alaskan biologists who were working with Native American communities on the conservation of the species. Thus, in 2000, it finally becomes Harelde kakawi again, a better name, already used everywhere else in the world.

By the way, regarding the sexist assumption in the previous name – male ducks make the loudest noise; females are much calmer


This article first appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.

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