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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

The plumage of the males is variable depending on the age and time of year, but is distinctive and hard to confuse with other species.  They go through a series of molts and partial molts from April to October, resulting in a wide range of plumages.  Dark, pointed wings in all plumages.  Swift fliers.


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.

Male Long-tailed Duck

Male in breeding plumage, only a few white feathers remain on the back of the head.  Note the color pattern of the bill, similar in all male plumages. Photograph © Tom Grey

Male Long-tailed Duck

Male in winter plumage. Neck and back of head now mostly white, instead of black.  Plumages on the back reduced.  Photograph by Alan Wilson.

Male Long-tailed Duck

Male in breeding plumage.  Photograph @ Glenn Bartley.

Male Long-tailed Duck

The wings are uniformily dark above and below. The feathers in the wings appear badly worn.  Photograph @ Glenn Bartley.

Male Long-tailed Duck in flight

Male in winter plumage, the long tail is still present. Photograph @ Glenn Bartley.

Male Long-tailed Duck in flight

The long tails are not present immediately after molting. Note the variable amount of white on the two trailing birds.  The lead bird appears to have an all black bill even though it is a male.  Wings pointed but short.  Photograph @ Glenn Bartley.


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

Male Long-tailed Duck

Adult female in winter plumage. Note white face and extensive white under the tail. Photograph © Alan Willson.

Female Long-tailed Duck

Female in spring plumage. Mostly dark head and small bill. Photograph @ Glenn Bartley.

Seasonal change in appearance

Males are whiter in winter with dark cheek patches.


Juveniles resemble adult females.

Female Long-tailed Duck

Juvenile Long-tailed Duck. Photograph © Tom Grey.


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.


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.

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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