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Long-tailed duck,{ Birds of Europe}

Updated on October 4, 2015

Long-tailed duck,Clangula hyemalis

Taken at Long Island New York.
Taken at Long Island New York. | Source


The Long tailed duck belongs to the order of birds known as the Anseriformes and the family Anatidae within that order. It has been placed in the genus Clangula,from the Latin clangere indicating to resound. The specific name of hyemalis derives from the Latin hiemalis and indicates wintery,from heimis =winter.

In the UK it is placed on the Green list of Conservation concern{ No current concerns} it is not a species of concern in Europe,However, globally it is classed as being vulnerable due to drastic declines detected the wintering populations in the Baltic sea. The UK population is estimated at 11,000 birds in winter and in summer 20-50,000. { Source the BTO }.

The European population is estimated at between 690,000 and 750,000 pairs. The populations vary from country to country ,here are few selected examples. Greenland,10,000-30,000 breeding Pairs {BP}. Finland 1,500-2,000 BP. Iceland 2,000-3,000 BP. Norway 5,000-10,000 BP. Russia 670,000-700,000 BP, and Sweden 1,000-3,000 BP. { Source Birdlife}

They breed in Northern Eurasia and North America,they winter south to Southern Europe ,east China and the southern USA.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Lach-bhinn. Welsh Hwyaden Gyriffon-hir and the Irish Lacha Earrfhada.

Here we review this species its habits and lifestyle and as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Long tailed duck and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Description of the Long tailed duck.

At a glance--The male in summer has a white face patch and a red brown body and white rear flanks. During winter they have dark cheek patches, with a white and pale grey body and long flexible trail points. There is a pale band on the dark stubby bill.

In more detail---The Long tailed duck is a bird of striking and somewhat curious appearance. The male has a short bill,dusky black at the base and towards the sides,the tooth dusky black. The remainder of the upper mandible has a pale pinkish red band then black at the tip, the edges of both mandibles are deeply pectinated. The iris is yellowish. The head on the crown,the feathers of which are long with hair-like beards,silvery creamy white,the forehead and the sides, which are grey have a roseate tinge The neck in front,white,on each side of it just below the head,there is an oblong patch, the upper part of which is blackish rusty brown,and the lower yellowish brown.

The nape white,chin and throat white. The breast above a deep chocolate blackish brown,below white,the sides tinged with grey. The back on the upper part a dark chocolate brown. The greater wing coverts are dusky the lesser wing coverts chocolate brown. The primary feathers are dusky,the speculum yellowish brown with the edges lighter. The tertiaries white. The tail is chocolate brown except the two long middle feathers which are dusky and the outer ones white.

The upper tail coverts,blackish, on the middle part,that is, the four centre feathers,and white on the sides,the remaining ones are brown deeply margined with white except the outermost,which are entirely white. The two middle feathers are narrow in shape and much larger than the others in all about nine inches long,the under tail coverts are white The legs and toes greenish or yellowish ash grey. The inner toes and the small ones behind are margined with small webs, the claws are black,the webs blackish.

The female has the bill blackish grey, the upper mandible orange yellow across the middle. The head on the front and sides greyish white,on the back cinereous. The crown dark purple brown,as is a patch towards the back of the side of the head. The neck is dull white, the chin and throat,dark purple brown. The breast above a deep reddish brown, the edges of the feathers darker, below white. The back dusky brownish black. The greater and lesser wing coverts,margined with brownish yellow and greyish white. The tail is purplish brown. The legs and toes grey, the joints darker the webs are dark grey.

Sir William Jardine stated that there is an extraordinary variation in the summer and winter dress of this bird. " In a specimen procured in summer the forehead and the sides of the head,brown,crown black,back of the head white. The neck,deep black, the upper tail coverts, deep brownish black. Under-tail coverts white." He adds that in winter the bill is black at the base, the tooth black,behind it is a deep band of lake red. The forehead a pale greyish brown, back of the head white. The neck on the back,white, on each side of it is a large oval-shaped patch of blackish brown,ended below with yellowish or reddish brown. The throat white, the breast on the upper part white. The back on the upper part white on the lower, brownish black.

The tail is graduated, the middle feathers being narrow and much elongated,brownish black in colour. The upper tail coverts, brownish black, under tail coverts white. The legs and toes yellow grey.

In the female in winter the crown is dark yellowish brown, the spot on the neck yellowish brown. The nape is also yellowish brown. The breast above yellowish brown,below white, the back blackish brown. The tail is not elongated.

Courtesy of Aflightoffeathers. Standard YouTube license.

Long tailed duck on the sea

Cobourg Ontario Canada
Cobourg Ontario Canada | Source

John James Audubon. An American ornithological icon


General and historical information

The Long tailed duck is another species of hardy birds which seem to revel in the cold of the extreme north. It is a well defined handsome species. They are rarely seen inland outside the breeding season. This species is also referred to in America as 'Old Squaw', although this has recently fell out of favour,it not being PC to use the word Squaw in its name.

It is the only living member of the genus. They do not breed in the UK, but protection of their wintering sites is important,because they are vulnerable to oil pollution at sea. A winter visitor and passage migrant to the UK,most common from Northumberland {north east England}, north to Scotland. They also occur in the sea off northern Scotland ,Shetland and Orkney.

They arrive at the end of October or the beginning of November where small flocks gather. They arrive with the first blast of winter and depart with the earliest blink of the summer sun. they migrate at night in large flocks. these ducks shun the society of other species,and keep in the main to their own species. They also soon learn to shun the approach of man and according to Butler," make off while the gunner is yet distant,at least they have learned the wisdom of doing so, for otherwise they are far from shy"

In the spring they become noisy and restless in their movements. At this time there seems to be contentions among the males,and they flutter along the surface, hurrying through each others ranks and splashing water in all directions. They are sea birds and pass almost all their time on the waves,floating about when not feeding and roosting there at night " rocked in the cradle of the deep".

Mr. Charles St John has given a good historical account of the habits of these birds. " They swim well and dive expertly for their food,one keeping watch above while the others are below the surface. They remain down for a considerable time, and , when feeding are constant in their descents ,after each necessary coming up to the surface, dipping one after another,with a curious kind of movement. thus they drift along with the flowing tide,and ride at ease over the heavy surf,or plunge into the midst of the wildest waves"

" When a thin crust of ice forms during the night the female will often be seen breaking a way through with her wings for her young"

Their ordinary flights are short distant at no great height above the sea,into which they suddenly drop into their natural home. They feed on small shellfish,mussels,crustaceans,shrimps and other marine insects, which they fish for during the day,diving to a depth of between ten and twelve feet to twenty or twenty five yards or more. One eminent ornithologist noted the following observations. " When forced by severe weather to a greater distance from the shore,so as to oblige it to dive to a deeper depth for their food, they are said to become weak and thin. They appear also to swallow seaweed and small fragments of sand and in the breeding season, when thrown in the way of a vegetable diet,are said to partake of the roots, leaves, buds and seeds of water plants"

As regards the species in America I now refer to Audubon 'Ornithological Biography' 1831-39 who reveals " The range of this noisy, lively and beautiful duck,extends along our coast as far south as Texas,and is also found in the mouth of the Columbia River,but the species is never found on any of our fresh water courses,and I am quite confident that Mr Say,mistook for it a Pintail duck,Anas acuta,when he says that he found it on the waters of the Missouri."

He continues, " During all my residence in the neighbourhood at the Mississippi,and in the course of all my journeys on and along its waters, I never saw one of these birds, or heard of any having occurred on that stream along its confluence with the Gulf of Mexico. Whereas the Pintails are extremely abundant there, as well as on the Missouri, the Ohio,and all our western streams in spring and autumn. Few long tailed ducks are to be seen in the Market of New Orleans,and in fact they are altogether what gunners usually call 'Sea-ducks'.

" They find various appellations,among them 'Old wives' and 'Old squaw'. Although ,like all Sea ducks the 'Old wife' swims deeply it moves with grace and celerity,which if not superior to those of any of its tribe, are at least equal, and when the weather is rough, and the waters agitated, it raises its tail in the manner of Ruddy duck and Pintail. When advancing in smooth water , its speed is such to cause a considerable swell before it such as sea-faring persons usually call a 'bone'"

" Like all others of its tribe,it also prefers swimming against both wind and tide,as then it can sooner take to wing if necessary. When on the wing, the long feathers of its tail do not seem to aid its progress,any more than any other species. Their flight is swift and well sustained { when on migration} and accompanied with a well marked whistling of their wings."

Another American writer says of this species-- " The flesh is none of the best,being dark,generally tough,and to the taste fishy,for which reason they are now a days frequently brought to the markets already plucked,with the head and feet cut off,and called by vendors by he all names excepting old wives,squaws,noisy ducks or south southerlies"

Courtesy of Ugo Troccoli. Standard You Tube license.

Nest and eggs


Breeding nest and eggs and young

This species nests about inland lakes,ponds and bogs,among the plants and low brush wood that afford cover near the water's edge. The nest itself is nothing more than a few stems of reeds,rushes or grasses,lined with down of the mothers breast,the quantity added as the number of eggs increases.many tend to breed in the same vicinity.

Meyer 1850, states " About the latter end of April the birds arrive in pairs at their breeding places,and in May the female lays. By the end of June the young make their appearance and are soon led to the seashore and instructed to swim and dive and provide for themselves. The male, who leaves all the nursery care to his mate,joins his family on arriving at that locality,and accompanies them in their migratory journey and winter sojourn"

The eggs which number from six to nine are a pale greenish or bluish white colour,tinted with buff. The female incubates the eggs for a period of twenty four to twenty nine days by the female and they are ready to become independent in a further thirty five to forty days. On this subject I now allude once again to the historical observations of Audubon {see above} who made the following notes in his book previously mentioned. He knew the species by the name of Fuligula glacialis.

" In the course of my rambles along the border of a large freshwater lake, near Bras-d'or in Labrador,on the 28th of July 1833, I was delighted by the sight of 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 two miles distant 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 for a while,searching at the time for their nests,one of which I was long in discovering. Although it was quite destitute of anything resembling the appearance of life, it still contained the down which the mother had plucked from herself for the purpose of keeping the eggs warm. It had placed it under an Alder bush,among rank weeds not more than eight to nine inches from the edge of the water,and was formed of rather course 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 sitting bird. The number of young broods in sight induced me to search for more nests,and in about an hour I had discovered six more"

" My young companion had, unfortunately for me, had walked that morning to Blane Sablon,about thirty miles distant,down the Straits of Belle Isle,and having no dog to assist me in procuring some of the young ducks I was obliged to enact the part of one myself,although the thermometer that day was 45-50 degrees,and the atmosphere felt chilly. I gave chase to the young ducklings,which made for different parts of the shore,as I followed them up to my middle in water,while they dived before me,like so many water-witches, the mothers keeping aloof, and sounding their notes of alarm and admonition "

" I was fortunate to procure several young birds and afterwards shot one of the old,which having young much smaller than the rest was more anxious for their safety,and kept them within shot. She and the young were afterwards put in rum,to be subsequently examined"

Mother with ducklings taken in Iceland



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Pamela KinnairdW,

      Hi Pamela, the other alternative names in North America,are old squaw {which is now thought to be politically incorrect } and ' southerlies' . thank you for your visit and for your votes and sharing all of which are much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Dapples 

      3 years ago from Just Arizona Now

      Beautiful duck. I hadn't seen this kind before and I read your article carefully to see what this duck might be known as in Canada. Unless I missed it, there is just the nickname which fell out of favor? And some might mistake it for the Pintail? I love the Pintail as it's so gorgeous sometimes. Perhaps during breeding season is when he gets all those lovely brown contrasts. Maybe this one is a variation of the Pintail? I didn't like your paragraph which began, "According to another distinguished writer of America...." Very sad statement therein.

      Voting up, Pinning and Sharing.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, I have every faith in you doing so,and I hope you enjoy the experience. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This is another beautiful bird that I soon hope to photograph and observe, if even for a short time. It would also be most advantageous to se the young, and how the family interacts with one another. My dream shall become reality, as I will make it so.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, you are always so encouraging with your comments which means a lot,as do your votes my friend. Best wishes to you..

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A greatly presented hub! I like the photos and again you have introduced to me another beautiful winged creature. I like ducks and this one is no exception. Voted up, interesting, beautiful, and useful.


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