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Long-tailed Duck

These sea ducks can be spotted in the northern hemisphere, but are considered to be in a threatened state due to hunting and getting trapped in fishnets.

Formerly known as the Oldsquaw, the Long-tailed Duck is an arctic breeder, but moves some distance south in the winter, with individuals occasionally reaching southern states. When migrating, Long-tailed Ducks usually move along coastlines during the day, but fly over inland areas at night.

Long-tailed Ducks are far more adept at swimming and diving than they are at flying or walking. When underwater, they use their wings rather than their feet for propulsion. Males begin courtship as early as the fall, although females are seldom receptive until February


Description of the Long-tailed Duck


The Long-tailed Duck is highly variable by season and gender, but has a small bill and short, pointed wings. Dark crown, back, and breast.
-White underparts and face.
-Long tail streamer.
Length: 16-22 in.  Wingspan: 28 in.


Mostly brown with white areas around the eyes. White undertail area.

Seasonal change in appearance

Males are whiter in winter with dark cheek patches.


Juveniles resemble adult females.


Oceans and large lakes.


Mollusks, crustaceans, and insects.


Forages by diving.


Breeds in Alaska, arctic Canada, and Greenland and winters off the east and west coasts, on the Great Lakes, and occasionally on other inland lakes.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Long-tailed Duck.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

The Long-tailed Duck was formerly known as the Oldsquaw.

Male Long-tailed Ducks defend nesting territories, although the female’s nest is sometimes outside of the territory of her mate.


Long-tailed Ducks produce three-note, yodeling calls and are very vocal.


Similar Species

  • The face patterns of Long-tailed ducks are distinctive.


The nest is a depression lined with plants and down.

Number: 6-8.
Color: Olive.

Incubation and fledging: Young hatch at 24-29 days. Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the female for some time.


Bent Life History of the Long-tailed Duck

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Long-tailed Duck – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


Long-tailed Duck (previously OLDSQUAW)

Spring: Oldsquaws, or long-tailed ducks, as I should prefer to have them called, are lively, restless, happy-go-lucky little ducks, known to most of us as hardy and cheery visitors to our winter seacoasts, associated in our minds with cold, gray skies, snow squalls, and turbulent wintry waves. Though happy and gay enough during the winter, the height of their merriment is seen in the spring or when the first signs of the breaking up of winter announce the coming of the nuptial season and arouse the sexual ardor of these warmhearted little ducks. Early in the spring they become more restless than ever, as they gather in merry flocks in the bays and harbors of the New England coasts; the males, in various stages of budding nuptial plumage and fired with the enthusiasm of returning passion, gather in little groups about some favored female in fantastic postures, rushing, flying, quarreling, and filling the air with their musical love notes. If noisy at other times, they are still more so now, vieing with each other to make themselves seen and heard; it is a lively scene, full of the springtime spirit of joy, love, and life.

The increasing warmth of the April sun and the stimulus of the courtship activities start the restless birds on their spring migration by various routes to their summer homes on Arctic shores. ‘While cruising along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on May 23, 1909, we saw what was probably the last of the spring migration on the south coast of Labrador; between the Moisie River and Seven Islands we saw numerous large flocks of from 50 to 200 birds each, perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 birds in all. They were noisy and very active, on the water and flying about high in the air, and many seemed to be in summer plumage or changing into it. They were evidently preparing for their overland flight to Hudson Bay; we saw none farther east along the coast, and, from what we could learn from the natives, we inferred that very few migrate around the eastern coast of Labrador and that the bulk of the flight passes overland northwestward to Hudson Bay. Oldsquaws no longer breed on the south coast of Labrador, where Audubon found them, and probably very few still breed on the northeast coast; I saw none during the summer of 1913 even as far north as Cape Mugford, but I obtained a skin of a male in full breeding plumage from an Eskimo at Okak and saw a set of eggs in Rev. IV. IV. Perrett’s collection, taken at Ramah. Lucien M. Turner’s unpublished notes state that “they arrive at the mouth of the Koksoak River as soon as the ice breaks up; this being a variable date, of course influences the time from the 20th of May to the 10th of June. Their first appearance is usually in the smaller fresh-water ponds and lakes from which the ice earlier disappears, long before the sea ice in the coves and bays begins to move out.” Probably these birds reach this portion of Ungava by the Hudson Bay route rather than by an outside route and through Hudson Straits, which are badly icebound at this season.

There is an extensive northward migration through the interior. E. A. Preble (1908) writes:

In the spring of 1904 I first saw this species at Fort Simpson May 10, from which date it was common. The birds, usually in small flocks, floated down with the current among the ice floes, occasionally rising and winging their way swiftly upstream to regain lost ground. The males played about on the water, chasing each other and uttering their loud, clear notes, which soon became associated in the mind with the long, cool evenings of the Arctic spring, with the sun hanging low In the northwestern horizon. When they are lightly swimming about, the long tails are elevated at an angle of about 450, and with their striking color pattern the birds present a very jaunty appearance. They are usually rather tame, sometimes rising and coming to meet the canoe, and actually becoming less wild if shot at. When slightly wounded they are among the most expert of divers and are difficult to secure. I be males played together considerably before the females arrived, but after that important event their gymnastic and vocal performances knew no bounds.

Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says that this is the first of the ducks to reach high northern latitudes in Alaska.

The seal hunters find them in the open spaces in the ice off Sr. Michaels from the 1st to the 20th of April, and the first open water in shore is sure to attract them. After tbeir arrival it is no nncommon occurrence for the temperature to fall to 250 or 300 below zero, and for furious storms of wind and snow to rage for days, so the lirst comers must be hardy and vigorous to withstand the exposure.

W. Elmer Ekblaw has sent me the following attractive account of the arrival of the oldsquaws in northern Greenland:

The distinctive resonant call of the oldsciuaxv announces the arrival of real spring to the far Arctic shores. The earlier herald, the snow bunting, conies while yet the land is covered with snow, while still the ice lies solid and unbroken throughout the wind-sivept fjords, and while yet the midnight situ is new and even the noonday is chill ; the oldsquaw comes when the snow is gone from the valleys and the slopes, and the first saxifrage and willow have burst into blossom, xvlten great dark leads and pools of open water break the white expanse of fjord ice, and when the sun at midsummer height is warm at maidni~ht as at noon. ‘When the challenging clarion of the oldsquaw rings out over the great north, spring has come.

The first few oldsquaws conte winging noisily in along the open leads the lirst week itt June. The males predominate in the first flocks, bitt by told-June, when the intinigration i.s at its height, the females ;il~ltenr to lo a it maceons as the males. Until the inland ponds and lakes are open. the oldsquaws frequent the leads and open pools in the fjord ice; they are most numerous along the shore where the tidal crack opeits up the ice, and xvhere the warmer fresh water coming down the slopes and hills nielts away the ice toot from the shore. In this along-shore water they apparently find more food, or food more to their ii kit ig: genor ally crustacon at iii stint 11 Ii sit.

From mid-June to the 1st of July tile ice ott the inland lakes melts away rapidly. Just as soon as the belts of open water show alotig tite banks, the oldsquaxvs begin to leave rite sea and citter rite fresh-water lakes. In flight tite female alivays leads, distinguishable by her plumper, dull-colored body and sitorter tail; in swimming tie male usually lends. Every lakelet Itas its pair or two of oldsquaws. Some of tlte pairs seems to be mated when they arrive in the northland, but many mate after their arrival. In the last two weeks of June the local mating season is at its height. Because the males are the inure numerous, the rivttlr)- for the females is very keen at-ti the fighting cotitinuous. During this time, the lake-dotted plains and valleys in the flats about North Star Bay resound with the clamor and din of mating oldsqnaws, and the birds may be seen flying swiftly from pool to pool, from point to point. The Eskimo consider them the swiftest flying hirds of the northland.

Courtship: The season of courtship is much prolonged or very varlable with this species. This is one of the few ducks that have a Spring molt and nuptial plumage; the time and extent of the molt varies greatly in different individuals; and the flush of sexual ardor is probably contemporary with the change of plumage. Couse (jticnth- some individuals molt and mate before they start on the spring migration and others not until after they have reached their breeding grounds. Many males apparently do not acquire a full nuptial plumage during the whole summer and probably do not mate that season; I have seen males in Alaska in midsummer in practically full winter plumage and in various stages between that and full nuptial plumage; the full development of the latter seems to be inther rare.

John G. Millais (1913) writes:

As previously stated, the actual courtship of the male is generally aroused and brought about by the sexual desire of the female, and amongst ducks the females are very irregular as to the time of their coming into season. Thus only one or perhaps two females in a large flock may be ivell advanced in their summer plumage and their breeding instincts, and these are the special objects of desire of all the males. I have noticed a bunch of S or 10 females s~vimining apart and not a male going near them, whilst 10 or 15 males xviii crowd round some particular female and lavish upon her all their arts of charm. The most common attitude of the male in courtship is to erect the tail, stiffen the neck to its fullest extent, and then lower it toward the female with a sudden bow, the bill being held outward and upward. As the head curves down, the call is emitted. Sometimes the head is held out along the water before the female, who herself often adopts this attitude, or makes a “guttering note of appreciation with bead held in close to the body. Another common attitude of the male is to throw the head right back till it almost touches the scapulars, the bin pointing to the heavens. As the bird throws the head forward again the call is emitted. Many males will closely crowd round a female, all going through the same performance. It is not long before a fight starts amongst the males, so that the lady of the tourney is in the midst of a struggling clamorous mass of squabbling knights, each endeavoring to show his qualifications to love by his extravagant gestures or strength. To add to the confusion, any male long-tails in the neighborhood are sure to hear the noise and come flying in all haste to take part in the jousts. Even males still in full winter plumage will come and be almost, if not quite, as active as the rest They advance with all haste, swaying from side to side, their sharp-pointed wings being only arrested when almost above the contest Then they close the wings in mid-air and dash into the fray with all their ardour. So impetuous and gallant are males of this species that they will chase each other for long distances, falling often in the sea and sending the spray flying; down they go under the water and emerge almost together on the surface to continue the chase in mid-air. I have twice seen a male when flying seize another by the nape and both come tumbling head over heels into the sea in mad confusion.

In Mr. Ilersey’s notes, made at the mouth of the Yukon, I find the following account of the later courtship, observed on June 19, 1914, which shows that the birds are not all paired when they arrive on their breeding grounds.

To-day I watched the courtship of a pair of this species. A male and two females were swimming, about in a small pond. As the male began calling another female joined the party. The male, however, paid all his attentions to one of the females and did not notice either of the others. As this favored bird swam slowly about her admirer followed, his bead drawa in close to his shoulders and the bill pointing downward, the tip not more than an inch or two from the surface of the water. When within 6 or 7 feet of the female he would raise his bead till it pointed straight upward and give a succession of deep notes not unlike the baying of hounds heard at a distance. These notes were usually in series of four or five, and with each the head was thrown stul farther back. The long tail was carried straight out horizontally as a general thing, or depressed slightly, but at times was elevated to an angle of about 450~ After calling, the bird dropped his head to its former position close to the water. All this time the female kept up a low quacking. After several of these sallies she would face her suitor, extend the neck and head fiat upon the water and swim toward him, turning when within a foot or two, and pass him whereupon he turned and the performance began all over again. After about an hour of this the female took flight closely followed by the male, and after circling the pond several times both birds returned to the water. The other two females had retired to the other end of the pond where they had been quietly feeding, hut the male now chased both of these birds out of the pond and then returned to the remaining bird. I have several times seen a female flying closely pursued by two males, all three twisting and turning so that it was difficult for the eye to follow them, but the female always kept in the lead.

Mr. Ekblaw, in his notes, writes:

On July 1, 1914, near the little Eskimo village, Umanak, on North Star Bay, I was able to study the mating antics of the oldsquaw at close range. The day was ideally calm, clear, and mild, and the birds were unusually stirred by the “cosmic urge.” Just across the steep ridge southeast of the house lies the broad, terraced, flood plain of a creek which now is a mere remnant of a stream unquestionably much larger in the past. The lowest terrace of this plain is one of such imperfect drainage that ponds and s~vales are numerous. About the shallow ponds and wet swales grasses and sedges grow in abundance. The lionds teem with tiny animal life. Here the oldsquaws breed and nest in numbers. It is one of their favorite haunts. I was concealed among the rocks of a ledge some 50 yards from a rather large, comparatively deep poiid. where the ice was melted along the edges. In the open water, on the edge of the ice, and along the grass-covered banks, seven pairs of oldsquaws were distributed, and two males were struggling strenuously for an unmated female. The paired birds xvere swimming contentedly about the pooi, busily preening their feathers on the ice, or sleeping cosily on the banks; the unmated female and the two males were strenuously sweeping the xvater or chasing over the pond in swift zigzag flight. Whenever one of the males attempted to mate with the female, the other invariably attacked, much to the evident displeasure of the female, who would then take quick wing, noisily protesting, and l)ursued by both males. Settled in the pool the males fought fiercely. splashing and churning the water. Neither seemed able to vanquish the other, and when I left my hiding place they were still struggling.

Nesting: Audubon’s (1840) historic account of finding the oldsquaw breeding on the southern coast of Labrador is now ancient history, bitt it is worth qiloting as a record of conditions which 110 longer exist, lie writes:

In tile course if one of my rambles along the borders of a large freshwater lake, near Bras-fit ir. in Labrador, on the 28th of July, 18.33, I was delighted by the sight if several young broods of this species of duck, all carefully attended to by their anxious and watchful mothers. Not a male bird was on the lake, which was fully 2 miles from the sea, and I concluded that In this species, as in many others, the males abandon the females after incubation has commenced. I watched their motions a good while, searching at the same time for nests, one of which I was not long in discovering. Although it was quite destitute of anything bearing the appearance of life, it still contained the down which the mother had plucked from herself for the purpose of keeping her eggs warm. It was placed under an alder bush, among rank weeds, not more than 8 or 9 feet from the edge of the water, and was formed of rather coarse grass, with an upper layer of finer weeds, which were neatly arranged, while the down filled the bottom of the cavity, now apparently flattened by the long sitting of the bird. The number of young broods in sight induced me to search for more nests, and in about an hour I discovered six more, in one of which I was delighted to find two rotten eggs.

The following extracts from Mr. L. M. Turner’s notes will illustrate the nesting habits of this species in Ungava, where it probably still breeds regularly:

To the freshwater ponds, around whose margins high grasses and sedges grow, the oldsquaws resort to build their nests. The nest is composed of grass stalks and weeds to a depth of 2 or 3 inches, in which the first egg is deposited. This is covered with down plucked from the bird, and to it a greater quantity is added as the number of eggs increases. The eggs, in the clutch, vary from 5 to 17; 9 to 13 being the usual number. The distance of the nest from salt water varies greatly, for I have seen a nest, on a small, low island, not more than a yard from the edge of the water, and again I have found one that was more than half a mile, where a large lake on the level of the higher land was connected by a swampy tract with the head of a long and deep but narrow gulch through which a small stream coursed.

A few pairs breed on the Pribilof Islands. I saw a pair on the village pond on St. Paul Island, but did not have time to hunt for its nest. Mr. William Palmer (1899) found a nest and nine eggs about 40 feet from this pond on June 12.

It was placed on a little hillock on the killing ground. When flushed, about 10 feet off, the bird flew directly to its mate in the pond. Leaving the eggs, I returned soon, to find that she had been back, had covered them completely with down and dry, short grass, and returned to the pond.

The main breeding grounds of the oldsquaw, in Noah America, extend from the mouth of the Yukon all around the coast of northern Alaska and all along the Arctic coast of the continent and the northern islands to Greenland. Throughout the whole of this region it is one of the most abundant ducks. The nests are widely scattered over the tundra, hut are more often found near the shores of the small ponds or on little islands in them; the nest is usually well concealed in thick grass or under small bushes, but it is often found in open situations. The female is a close sitter, and when she leaves the nest she covers it so skillfully with the dark sooty brown down, grass, and rubbish that it matches its surroundings and is about invisible. It is well that she does so for she has many enemies, wandering natives, roving (logs and foxes, jaegers, gulls, and other nest robbers that are always on the lookout for eggs. Mr. Hersey found a nest near St. Michael on July 5. 1915, containing six eggs: it was in an open situation in short grass ’20 feet from the shore of a small pond. and while going for his camera, only a short distance away, some short-hilled and glaucous gulls found the nest and destroyed the eggs.

Mr. Ekblaw, in his notes, says:

The nests are built in small-cup-like hollows, sometimes in tbe grass near the pools, but more frequently among the rocks at considerable distances from any water. The sites are selected with a view to concealment. The nest is well lined with mottled brown down from the female’s breast. When the eggs are covered ~vith the down in the absence of die bird, or when she is brooding theum, the nest is well-nigh impossible of detection. The female is not readily frightened from her nest; ‘n-hen she is driven off she simulates injury and distress to draw away tIme intruder, in (lie manner common to so many birds. The foxes take toll of the oldsquaw eggs as of the eggs of all the birds.

The down in the oldsquaw’s nest is very small; it varies in color from “bister” to “sepia,” and has small but conspicuous whitish centers.

Eggs: The oldsquaw is said to lay as many as 17 eggs, but the set usually consists of from 5 to 7. Only one brood is raised in a season. In shape the eggs are ovate, elliptical ovate, elongate ovate, or even cylindrical ovate; they are often more pointed than ducks’ eggs usually are. The surface is smooth, but not very glossy. The color varies from “deep olive buff’~ to “olive buff” or from “water green” to “yellowish glaucous.” The measurements of 139 eggs, in the United States National Museum collection, average 53 by 37 millimeters: the eggs showing the four extremes measure 60 by 39, 58 by 40, 48 by 37.5, and 51.5 by 35.5 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be about three and a half weeks. It is performed by the female alone, but the male does not wholly desert her, remaining in the nearest pond and encouraging her with demonstrations of affection. About the time that the young are ready to hatch he flies axvay and joins others of his kind on the seacoast. As soon as the eggs are hatched and the young are strong enough to walk, the mother leads them over the perilous journey to the nearest water. Mr. Turner watched a mother bird conducting her brood of 13 young for more than half a mile from a sxvampy tract through a long and deep but narrow gulch, through which a small stream flowed, down to a cove into which it opened. His notes state:

The old bird was much disturbed when I came upon her and she pretended to be wounded. She fluttered and waddled about in a frantic manner, hut while chasing her I saw the young and could then have easily taken the old bird in my hand, as she actually fluttered at my feet, so intent was she to withdraw my attention from her young. I retired, and with peculiar call she gathered the young ones and began her march. I followed them to the salt waler where the mother seemed frantic with joy, as she flopped arountl like a tame duck at the approach of rain. The young ~vere not more than two days old and had awaited until they had sufficient strength to undertake the long journey. They took to the water as though they had been accustomcd to it for weeks. I must confess that I felt pleased that I did not molest them for I have seldom seen anything that afforded me greater satisfaction than to witness the pleasure evinced hy the old bird when she had her young on the bosom of the sea where she felt so secure.

There are so nranv enemies to be contended with at this critical period that it is a wonder that any of these ducks ever succeed in raising a brood. It is only by good luck in many cases that the nest ts not discovered and Fobbed; and oniy eternal vigilance and a constant struggle on the part of the devoted mother serves to protect the little ones from their enemies. In the instance just related several occupied fox dens were within a short distance of the nest, yet the eggs were hatched and the young were conducted away in safety.

The following incident is related by Mr. Millais (1913)

I watched a newly hatched brood of long-tailed ducks one day for a long time and noticed that they took very little food for themselves. They caught a few flies, but most of their food was obtained by the mother diving incessantly and bringing up substances from the bottom mid placing it before her brood. When she appeared they all kept up a gentle “peeping” sound and kept close together in a bunch, seldom running to catch flies as other young ducks do. After watching these birds for some time I wandered up the river to the Lake ef Myvata to look at a scoters nest, and on returning witnessed the attack of t;vo Richardson’s skuas, a black and a white bellied one, on the same brood of long-tailed duck. The method of attack was exactly the same as I have seen employed by carrion crows in Ilyde Park. One skua swooped down and distracted the mother’s attention to one side by hovering over the water. Tire anxious parent opened her bill and gave a series of grating calls. As tire marauder came to the level of the water the long-tailed duck ~vith raised crest made a fierce rush of a few yards at it and in this short space of time tbe second skua swooped down, picked up a nestling, and sxvallowod it alive, head first. The frantic mother then darted in the other direction whorl the skun that had first attacked nimbly picked up a duckling and s~valloxved it whilst mounting into the air. These skuas, which are plentiful at Myvatn, must commit ccii siderable havoc amongst the very young ducks and doubtless coirstitute their chief enemies. Mr. Manaiche, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Denmark in 1911, tells me that the glaucous gull is equally mischievous in destroying the young of long-tails and king elders in East Greenland and probably Buffon’s skua is another successful pirate.

The young are taught to dive at an early age, but at first they are not very successful. Mr. Ilersey’s notes state that on July 5, 1915, a female and eight recently hatched voun~ were “seen on a small pond. The female did not fly but swam arollnd the young calling softly to them. At an apparent signal from the mother all would dive, but the young were unable to stay below the surface more than four or five seconds. The parent would then come to the surface and again try to coax them to follow her below. She did not attempt to lead them to the shore.” When the young are fully grown and able to fly they all leave the small ponds and sheltered places where they have been living and move ofF to the shore. This often occurs quite late in the season, for small downy young are often to be found up to the middle of August or later; the hatching date is very variable, as the eggs are so often disturbed and a second or third laying made necessary. The lateness of the fall migration gives a long breeding season and plently of time to make several attempts at raising a brood.

Mr. Ekblaw’s notes state that:

While the females are brooding the eggs the males and the sterile females fly and swim about the ponds in promiscuous flocks. These sterile females are restless and active, quite different from the mated females during the mating season. In the mating season the female of a pair usually rests quietly on the bank of the pond, apparently heavy with eggs, while her mate swims about near her. The sterile females are noisy and uneasy.

These sterile females and the males leave the land and the environs of the shore about the 20th of July and seek the outer skerries and open water. The nesting females take their little ducklings down to the salt water as soon as they can toddle along, and from then until they hie themselves away to the southland they spend all their time along the rocky shores in the pleasant coastal bays and fjords or about the icebergs and floes. Very frequently two mother birds join their flocks, and then, when swimming about in the open sea, one mother leads the flock while the other brings up the rear.

The young birds grow fast and quickly develop strength for swImming far and fast. They can dive as well as they can swim. They soon lose their first down and take on a juvenal dark-brown downy covering, into which the feathers gradually come. It is not until they are fully grown, about the last week in August or first week in September, that they are able to fly, and then, fat and plump and strong, they start southward by easy stages, developing wing power as they go. Long before the elders begin leaving, the oldsquaws are gone from the coast, and then winter soon sets in.

Plumages: The downy young oldsquaw is very dark-colored above, very deep, rich “clove brown,” becoming almost black on the crown and rump. and paler “clove brown” in a band across chest. This dark color covers more than half of the head, including the crown, hind neck, and cheeks; it is relieved, however, by a large spot below the eye and a smaller one above it of whitish, also an indistinct loral spot and postocular streak of the same. The throat is white and the sides of the neck and auricular region are grayish white. The belly is white. Both the dark and the light brown areas become duller and grayer with age.

The plumage appears first on the under parts; the breast and belly are fully feathered first, then the flanks and scapulars; the plumage covers the back, head and neck before the wings are grown, m September. All this takes place while the old birds are molting their wings and are flightless. Both old and young birds are able to fly by October and are then ready to start on their migrations.

Mr. Millais (1913) describes the juvenal plumage, as follows:

In first plumage, in September, the young male has the crown dark brown; the back of the neck is grayish-brown till it meets the mantle, which, with the wings, back, and tail, are black, with a dark-gray suffusion. A dark bnnd of grayish-black also crosses the upper part of the chest, and these feathers, as well as the gray and spotted ones on the sides of the chest, are edged with light sandy-brown; the scapulars blackish-brown, edged with light sandy-brown; flanks gray, tinged with sandy-brown; thighs gray; breast, belly, and vent white. In many specimens only the center tail feathers are black, the rest being brown, edged with white, whilst some have a few sandy edged feathers on the upper tail coverts. Round the eye and lores whitish. gray; cheeks, throat, and chin brown-gray. In many specimens the secondaries are brown, and the breast spotted with brownish-gray. In this month the young male is no larger than the female, but by the end of October It has grown to nearly the full size of the adult male. By the end of this month, and during November, new feathers are rapidly coming in, and the Immature feathers of the head are being replaced by others resembling those of the adult

From this time on during the winter and spring there is a slow but steady progress toward maturity of plumage by a practically continuous molt. ‘The crown, throat, and neck become gradually whiter, the brownish-black cheek patches develop and brownishblack feathers appear in the chest; the gray face begins to show, the back becomes blacker and the grayish-white scapulars and flank feathers appear. By the end of March the young male begins to look like the winter adult, but the colors are not so pure or so intense. In April the molt into the first nuptial plumage begins, in which the young bird can be distinguished from the adult by the faded and worn wings, the imperfect and mottled appearance of the breast, and the absence of the long tail feathers. During August and September a complete molt occurs, at which the wings and tail are renewed, the long tail feathers are acquired and the adult winter plumage is assumed; by the end of November, at the latest, this plumage is complete and the young bird may be said to be adult at seventeen months of age.

The seasonal changes of plumage in the adult male oldsquaw are unique, striking, and very interesting; it is one of the few ducks in the world to assume a distinctly nuptial plumage. The molt into this plumage begins in April and in the oldest and most vigorous birds it is completed in May; but in the younger birds and less vigorous individuals, the molt is prolonged into the summer and is often incomplete. Some birds acquire the full nuptial dress (in which the face is “smoky gray,” with a white space around and behind the eye, the feathers of the upper back and scapulars are broadly edged with “saval brown ” and the rest of the head, neck, breast, back and wings are deep, rich “seal brown.’ nearly black on the upper surfaces) before they migrate north in the spring; I have seen birds in the full perfection of this plumage as early as May 10; but most birds reach their breeding grounds in various Stages of transition, showing more or less white or gray feathers iii the dark areas. There is no real eclipse plumage in the oldsquaw, but Mr. Millais (1013) says:

During August tbe male long-tailed duck completely changes the wing, tail, back, and black portion of the mantle and black breast band, these parts being replaced by the new winter plumage. The head, neck, and upper mantle, showing worn and faded plumage feathers. rumaili until sited at the end of September. The elongated scapulars are shed and not renewed until late September, but in late July a considerable number of new blackish and brown feathers come into the upper scapulars and mix with the old worn summer plumage feathers, whilst a number of new dark-gray feathers, shailar to tbose worn by the scaup, tufted duck, and guldeneye male in eclipse, come unto the flanks and remain until shed again in early October. The reason of this, I take it, is that since Nature abhors sudden changes of color from dark to light, whilst the landscape is still under the warm colors of summer and autumn, the male long-tail only renews those parts of its plumage to the full winter dress which are directly in harmony with its surroundings, adding, however, temporary feathers, as it were, to carry it over the three temperate months when it hides in the shadows of banks or rocky inlets. Thus all the dark parts of its plumage are renewed once, and once only, and the light parts which would be noticeable are delayed by a temporary makeshift until such a tune as concealment is no longer necessary.

Of the plumage changes of the female he says:

In first plumage the immature female closely resembles the young male, except that the color is somewhat paler. They are also easily recognized by October by the incoming feathers of the respective sexes. In the case of the young female the advance of plumage is somewhat slower than that of the male, and she only obtains a few of the winter dress fealbers. In April the greater part of the adult summer plumage is assumed, but there is little or no change on the back, breast, and lower parts, whilst the wings and tail are not shed at all until the principal molt in July and August. The young female then gradually assumes her winter dress. which is complete in October. She is thus adult at 10 months, and will pair and breed the following summer.

Young females may be recognized during their first year by their imperfect and more or less mottled head pattern and by the broad, gray edgings of the upper back and scapulars. Adult females in winter have the feathers of the back, scapulars, and wing coverts broadly edged with “tawny” or “cinnamon brown,” and the upper chest and flanks are suffused with lighter shades of the same. The partial prenuptial molt occurs in April, leaving the wings worn and faded; the head becomes largely brownish black, with whitish spaces before and behind the eye, and the upper parts are nearly uniform brownish black. In August and September a complete molt produces the winter plumage.

Food: Most of the oldsquaw~s food is obtained by diving in water of moderate depths to the beds of mussels (Al yteiis eduli.s) and other bivalve and univalve mollusks, but many of these are picked up in shallow water, as the rising tide covers the ledges; as the mussels open their shells to procure food they are picked out by the ducks. Much food is also picked up along the beaches, such as shrimps. sand fleas, small mollusks, crustaceans, beetles, and marine insects, together with some seaweeds and a quantity of sand. On their breeding grounds the food consists largely of the roots, leaves, buds, and seeds of various aquatic plants; the young live largely on insects, larvae, and soft animal food which abounds in the tundra pools. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) includes in their vegetable food teal moss (Limnoliurn), blue flag (Iris), duckweed, water plantain, pondweed, and pickerel weed.

George H. Mackay (1892), writing of the habits of this bird on the Massachusetts coast, says:

Oldsquaws do not seem to be at all particular in regard to their food, eating Quite a variety, among which are the follo~ving: A little shellfish, very small, resembling a diminutive tluahog (Vcu us a~ creenaria), but not one sand fleas short razor shells (Siliquu costa to) fresh-water clams; small white perch; small catfish ; penny shells (Astarte castqaee) ; red whale bait (brit) ; shrimps; mussels; small blue-claw crabs; and pond grass. It was during the early part of the severe winter of ISSS that many oldsquaws sought the land. Alighting on the uplands adjacent to the north shore of the island, they came in flocks of a hundred or less, in order that they might obtain and eat the dried fine top grass (Aatho.rautham odora team) which grows wild there; when engaged in plucking it their movements while on the ground were far from awkward, in fact rather graceful, as they ran quickly about gathering the grass, seine of which was still in their mouths when shot.

Willialn B. Haynes (1901) observes:

Most authorities agree that the oldsquaw is unedible when killed on the Great Lakes, but here (Ohio) they vary their diet with worms and are far better eating than scaup or goldeneye. I have found the common angle~vorm anti a large green worm resembling a cutworm in their throats.

Edwin D. Hull (1914) says that itt Jackson Park, Chicago, in winter: The plants, rocks, and piers constitute a very favorable habitat for hamense swarms of silvery minnows (Notropis athertnoides), which seem to be almost if not entirely the sole source of food for the old squaw in this locality. ‘rhe stomach of an adult female found floating in a lagoon April 1, 1912, contained approximately 140 of these minnows, all entire, besides many fragments of the same fish, but no other food. The fish averaged about 2 inches in length.

Behavior: When migrating. old squaws fly high in the air in irregular flocks or in Indian file, but at other times they fly close to the water or a few feet above it, but almost never in a straight line; they twist and thlrn suddenly, showing the breast and belly alternatelv like shore. birds. swinging in broad circles most unexpectedly. Their flight is so swift and so erratic that it is very difficult to shoot them, but they are often very tame or stupid and are quite as likely to swing in toward a gunner’s boat as away from it; then in turning they often bunch together so closely that a tempting shot is offered; I have seen as many as nine dropped out of such a bunch at one shot. I have seen them, when shot at, dive out of the air into the water, swim for a long distance under water, and then come out of the crest of a wave flying at full speed, as if they had never broken their flight. They can rise readily off the surface of even smooth water, and when alighting on it often drop in abruptly with an awkward splash. If there is a strong wind blowing they are more inclined to circle into the wind, glide down gently against it on set wings and alight with a sliding splash. Old squaws can generally be recognized at a long distance by their peculiar method of flight and by their striking color pattern, the white head and neck and the short, sharp-pointed, black wings being very conspicuous.

Toward spring they are particularly restless and active on the wing and often indulge in aerial evolutions, such as Mr. Mackay (1892) describes, as follows:

These ducks have a habit of towering both in the spring and in the autumn, usually in the afternoon, collecting in mild weather in large flocks if undisturbed, and going up in circles so high as to be scarcely discernible, often coming down with a rush and great velocity, a portion of the flock scattering and coming down in a zigzag course similar to the scoters when whistled down. The noise of their wings can be heard for a great distance under such conditions. In one such instance, at Ipswich Bay, Mass., a flock of several hundred went up twice within an hour.

The old squaw swims low in the water, but makes rapid progress even in rough water; it rides easily over the ordinary waves, but dives under the crest of a breaker with good judgment and precision. It is one of the most expert of the diving ducks and will often dodge under at the flash of a gun; in diving the wings are partially opened as if they were to be used under water; probably they generally are so used, but not always. It can dive to great depths if necessary. Prof. MT. B. Barrows (1912) says:

Several observers mention the fact that it is often caught in the gill nets set in deep water for lake trout and whitefish (in the Great Lakes.) One fisherman at St. Joseph told me most positively that he had seen it caught repeatedly in net set at a depth of 30 fathoms (180 feet).

Dr. A. IV. Butler (1897) and Mr. E. 11. Eaton (1910) both make similar statements, and the latter says that “at Dunkirk, N. Y., between five and seven thousand have been taken at one haul”; this seems almost incredible.

When feeding in flocks their diving tactics are interesting to watch. L. M. Turner (1886) writes:

When searching for food they string out in a long line and swim abreast. At a signal one at the extreme end goes down, the rest follow in regular time, never all at once, and rarely more than two or three at a time. The last one goes down in his turn with the regularity of clockwork. As they dive they seem to go over so far as to throw the long tail feathers until they touch water on the other side. They remain under water a long time and usually come up near each other.

His notes state that they “remain under water for periods varying from 40 to 92 seconds.” This last figure seems as if it might be an error, for the following observations by Mr. Seton Gordon (1920) seem to indicate great regularity in the diving periods of this species; he says:

On one occasion, December 16, I tuned a drake during sfx dives, as follows: 37, 37, 37, 30, 37, 37 seconds. As will he seen, his periods of submersion were extremely regular. On December 18 I watched for some time a pair diving energetically. The drake kept under longer than the duck, half a dozen of his dives being as follows: 37, 42, 36, 35, 33, 32 seconds, and those of the duck, 33, 37, 35, 33, 33, 32 seconds. On emerging, the duck seemed to shoot up more buoyantly than the drake. In the afternoon I timed the drake for four dives, as follows: 42, 40, 42, 45 seconds. The periods during which the birds were above water between the dives I timed as follows: 10, 8, 6, 8, 7, 11 seconds. On December 21 I timed a pair diving and emerging almost sin,nltaneously, as follows: 34, 32, 37, 38, 40, 43, 36 seconds. Before the two longest of these dives, the birds swam for some time on the surface of the water.

If there is any one thing for which the old squaw is justly notorious it is for its voice. It certainly is a noisy and garrulous species at all seasons, for which it has received various appropriate names, such as old squaw, old injun, old wife, noisy duck, hound, etc. The names south-southerly, cockawee, quandy, coal and candle light, as ~vell as a variety of Indian and Eskimo names have been applied to it as suggesting its well-known notes; all of these are more or less crude imitations of its notes, which are difficult to describe satisfactorily, but when once heard are afterwards easily recognized, for they are loud, clearly uttered, and very distinctive. Mr. Francis H. Allen has given me the best description of it as “ow-o’wdle-ow and ow-ow-owdie-ow with a Philadelphia twang; that is, with a short a sound in the ow. The last syllable is higher pitched than the rest and is emphasized.”

Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) describes it very well in the following words:

To my ear it does not recall the common name “south-southerly’ given it on the Atlantic coast, but Is well expressed by an epithet given it by the Germans about Niagara River, who call it the “ow-owly.” Ow-ow-ly, ow-osolv, ow-owly, frequently repeated in succession, the first two notes considerably mouthed, and the last syllable in a high, shrill, clarion tone, may suggest the queer notes to anyone whose ear is familiar with them. Not infrequently the last syllable is left out of the ditty, the bird seeming somewhat In a hurry, or the note becomes a mere nasal, oh, oh, oh, rapidly uttered.

Doctor Nelson (1887), referring to the notes heard on their breeding grounds, writes:

During all the spring season until the young begin to hatch, the males have a rich musical note, Imperfectly represented by the syllables A-Zdedle-a, aWcdle-o, frequently repeated in deep, reedlike tones. Amid the general hoarse chorus of waterfowl at this season, the notes of the 01(1 squaw are so harmonious that the fur traders of the Upper Yukon have christened it the “organ duck,” a well-merited name. I have frequently stopped and listened with deep pleasure to these harmonious tones, while traversing the broad marshes in the dim twilight at midnight, and while passing a lonely month on the dreary banks of the Yukon delta I lay in my blankets many hours at night and listened to these rhythmical sounds, which with a few exceptions were the only ones to break the silence. These notes are somewhat less common during the day.

Mr. Ekblaw, in the notes, describes them as follows:

The call is a loud, ringing eap, eap-onk that carries far and clear. The call is given with a quick hard recoil of the head with the emission of each syllable, as if requiring considerable force. The vibrant resonance of the call is undoubtedly due to the peculiar development of the voice box. At the base of the trachea, just at the junction of the bronchial tubes, is a coiled enlargement resembling a mellophone, with a tightly stretched membrane along one side, probably the mechanism by which the volume and quality of the call are produced.

Oldsquaws fly in flocks by themselves, but in their winter haunts the-i- are associated more or less with red-breasted mergansers, scoters, eiders, and goldeneyes, frequenting similar feeding grounds. They are said to show a decided antipathy to cormorants and to leave their feeding grounds when these birds visit them. Mr. Milmis (1913) says:

The principal enemies of the species are the cowardly white-tailed eagles, who kill numbers of half-grown young and wounded birds, the Greenland and Iceland falcons, the three long-tailed skuas, and the great blackback and glaucous gulls. Arctic foxes and polar bears also account for a good many before they can fly.

Fall: By the time that the young birds are strong on the wing, during the early part of the fall, both old and young leave their breeding grounds in the north and begin to gather in large flocks on the Arctic coast. John Murdoch (1885) says, of the beginning of the migration at Point Barrow:

Through July and August they vary in abundance, some days being very plenty, while for t~vo or three days at a time none at all are to be seen. At this season they fly up amid down not far from the shore and light in the sea. Toward the end of August they are apt to form large ‘beds’ near the station, and this habit continues in September whenever there is sufficient open water.

Many come from the cast in September and cross the isthmus at Pergalak and continue on down the coast to the southwest. We noticed them going southwest past Point Franklin, August 31, 1883, in very large flocks. After October 1 they grow scarcer, but some are aiwnys to be seen as late as there is any open water.

In northern Labrador similar movements take place; “from the last of August to the middle of October immense numbers of these birds assemble in Hudson Straits,” according to Mr. Turner’s notes; he says that they disappear from Fort Chimo about the middle of November.

On the New England coast the first cold storm of late October brings a few scattering flocks of oldsquaws. but it is not until late in the fall or when early winter conditions are almost here that the heavy flight comes along; driven like snowflakes ahead of a howling norther. flock after flock of these hardy little sea fowl sweep and whirl over the cold gray waves; or high in the air they twist and turn, twinkling like black and white stars against the leaden sky. The shore birds’ whistles are no longer heard; they have passed on to warmer climes; but like the cries of a distant pack of hounds the merry notes of the oldsquaws cheer the gunner’s heart as he sits in his anchored boat behind a string of wooden decoys waiting for a shot at passing ” coots.” The main flight of scoters has I)assed, an occasional V-shaped flock of geese passes overhead, honking its warning of approaching winter, and soon long lines of brant will be looked for winging their apparently slow and heavy flight close to the water. As Walter H. Rich (1907) puts it:

Winter is close at hand. There is a sting in the wind, a nip in the air, and the fingers are numb and blue as they hold the gun barrels. But out on the water, careless of wind or wave, rides a flock of “squaws” making always a merry clatter. Ever and anon some of their number rise against the breeze to dart off at lightning speed, apparently iii the mere enjoyment of flight, for, circling a half a mile about, they plump down again among their comrades, all the time noisily calling to each other. We might almost say they are the only song birds among the ducks, for really their notes are very pleasant to hear and quite musical in comparison with the usual vocal production of the family.

Game: Oldsquaws are not held in much esteem as game birds; their flesh is rank, fishy, and tough; but there are gunners that will eat them. Many are shot, however, every fall by gunners who are out after scoters; later in the season large flocks of oldsquaws frequently pass over or along the line of boats anchored in their path. They decoy well to the wooden blocks used for this kind of shooting, and are often quite tame or full of curiosity. They often offer tempting shots, and their flight is so swift and erratic that it requires considerable skill and practice to hit a single bird when they are flying before the wind one must hold well ahead of them. They are so lough that only a small portion of the birds shot down are killed, and it is almost useless to pursue the wounded ones, as they are more than a match for the gunner in rough water.

Winter: Oldsquaws are common in winter as far north as southern Greenland and the Diomede Islands in Bering Straits, where they can find open water among the ice, but they are more abundant below the regions of frozen seas. Even on the New England coast they sometimes encounter ice conditions too severe for them. Mr. Mackay (1892) writes:

Although, as their Latin name expresses, they are particularly a coldweather bird, it is a matter of interest that ducks with such Arctic proclivities should find the effects of the climate so rigorous at times on the New England coast that they are unable to sustain life and are in consequence obliged to succumb. Yet such is the case. It was during the winter of 1888, when, standing on the high land of Nantucket Island and looking seaward In any direction, nothiag but ice was visible; for a month the harbor was closed and there was sleighing on it. There was no open water in sight except an occasional crack in the ice caused by the change of tides; most of the sea fowl had left this locality during the early stage of the severely cold weather. Many oldsquaws remained, however, until they were incapacitated through lack of food and consequent loss of strength from doing so. As a result It was ~i common occurrence to find them lying around dead or dying on the shore. Those that were alive were so weak they could not fly, anti on examination proved to be nothing literally but skin and bone, others apparently had starved to death.

Referring to their habits here, he says:

Off the south side of Nantucket Island the oldsquaws collect in countless myriads. On February 19, 1891, I saw a flock of oldsquaws estimated to contain 2,000 birds off the south shore of Nantucket about 5 miles from the Island, and I know of no better place to observe them in numbers. They arrive about the third to the last week in October, according to the weather, and remain until the latter part of November; most of them then move farther south. The height of their abundance is the first half of November. They congregate on “Old Man’s Rip” and on “Miacomet Rip,” shoal ground 2 to 8 miles from the south shore of the Island, the water there being 8 to 4 fathoms deep. Here they live in security, with an abundance of food, during the day. About 3 o’clock p. m. they commence to leave this place for the Sound (the movement continuing until after dark) where they regularly roost, flying around that part of the island which affords them, at the time the greatest shelter from the wind, retaining on the following morning to their feeding ground by which ever route is the most favorable. An examination of the stomachs of some of those oldequaws which I shot in the early morning coniIng from the Sound, showed them to be empty. I think occasionally on clear calm nights they remain on their feeding grounds, and do not go Into the Sound to roost. They apparently prefer to feed in water not more than 3 to 4 fathoms deep, or shallower, unless compelled in order to obtain food. I have noticed north of Cape Cod during the winter months that some oldsquaws will feed and remain just back of the line of breakers on the beaches, and also around the rocks, but generally they are in small and detached groups of but few individuals.

Many oldsquaws spend the winter in the Great Lakes and in other large bodies of water in the interior, bitt it is decidedly a maritime species by preference. For a study of the habits of this species on Lake Michigan in winter, I would refer the Feader to an excellent paper on this subject by Edwin U. Hull (1914) based on observations for three seasons at Chicago. I can not afford the space to quote from it as freely as it deserves. Severe winter conditions sometimes drive a few birds as far as the southern borders of the United States. Messrs. Beyer, Allison, and Kopman (1907) record the capture of one in Louisiana on February 13, 1899. “At the time of the capture of this specimen a severe blizzard was sweeping the South. Zero temperatures were reported at points near the Louisiana coast.”

Breeding range: Arctic coasts of both hemispheres. On the Labrador Peninsula south, in Audubon’s time, to the southeastern coast of the peninsula (Bras d’Or), but now probably not much south of northern Labrador (Okak and Nain). Ungava Bay and the lower Koksoak River (Fort Chimo) and down the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, perhaps as far as Cape Jones. On ‘Southampton Island and other lands north of Hudson Bay, and on the west coast of the bay at least as far south as Cape Fullerton and perhaps as far as Churchill. Along the entire Arctic coasts and barren grounds of Canada and Alaska. South on the Alaskan and Siberian coasts of Bering Sea to the Aleutian and Commander Islands and on all ihe islands in that sea. Along the Arctic coasts and barren grounds of Asia and Europe, south in Scandinavia to about 000 north. On the Faroc Islands, on Iceland, and on both coasts of Greenland. North on practically all Arctic lands as far as they have been explored up to 82~ north.

Winter range: In North America south on the Atlantic coast abundantly to southern New England, commonly to Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina, more rarely to South Carolina, Florida (Brevard and Leon Counties) and occasionally to the Gulf coast of Louisiana; north, when open water is to be found, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sometimes southern Greenland. On the Pacific coast south regularly to Washington, less commonly to California, as far south as San Diego; north to the Aleutian Islands, and sometimes to the Diomede Islands. In the interior it winters abundantly on the Great Lakes and more rarely or irregularly on other large bodies of water west and south to Nebraska (Omaha), Colorado (Barr Lake), and Texas (Lake Surprise). In southern Europe south to about 400 north, on the Black and Caspian Seas; and in Asia, south to Lake Baikal, China, and Japan.

Spring migration: Mainly coastwise, but also overland to northern coasts. Dates of arrival: New Brunswick, Grand Manan, March 9; Ontario, Ottawa., April 2; Mackenzie. Fort Simpson, May 10; northern Greenland, Etali. May 20; Boothia Felix, latitude 700, June 12; Winter Harbor. latitude 750, June 22; Cape Sabine, latitude 78~, June 1; Fort Conger, latitude. 810, June 6. Dates of arrival in Alaska: Chilcat, March 11; Admiralty Island. April 17; St. Michael, April 1; Cape Prince of Wales, April 22; Kowa~ River, May 22; Humphrey Point. May 20; Point Barrow, May 15.

Late dates of departure: Rhode Island, May 4; Massachusetts, May 22; Maine, May 21; Gulf of St. Lawrence. May 23; Pennsylvania, Erie, May 18; Alberta, Fort McMurrav, May 15; southern Alaska, May 19.

Fall migration: Reversal of spring routes. Early dates of arrival: Great Bear Lake, Aug~~st 28; Pennsylvania, Erie, September 13; Massachusetts, September 30; New York, Long Island, October 8 (average October 16). Late dates of departure: Northern Greenland, latitude 82~, September 16; Alaska, Point Barrow, December 9. and St. Michael, October 20.

Egg dates: Arctic Canada: Fifty-three records, June 7 to July 18; 27 records, June 19 to July 4. Alaska: Sixteen records, May 22 to July 28; eight records, June 16 to July 9. Labrador: Three records, June 16, 17, and 27.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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