Oldsquaw. What a marvelously insensitive, splendidly politically incorrect name for a duck. In just eight letters, it manages to insult women, the elderly, Native Americans. As if the name itself were not bad enough, the very reason the name was chosen is right in line with the offensiveness of the moniker. During the breeding season, these birds gather in large numbers in northern Canada, build their nests quite close to each other, and then create an almost incessant cacophony of squawks and grunts throughout the whole nesting period. Just like.... well, you get the picture. But here's the thing: It's the males, not the females, who do most of the chattering. Exquisite irony.
Across the Atlantic, this bird has always been known as the Long-tailed Duck, and eventually (less than 20 years ago) American ornithologists got with the program and officially changed the name to Long-tailed Duck. But duck hunters still seem to prefer Oldsquaw, and occasionally you'll hear an old-timer birder use the old name.
Whatever you prefer to call it, the Long-tailed Duck is a delicately beautiful bird whose dainty look belies its hardiness. It's a sea duck that lives and breeds in the arctic wetlands of northern Canada during the summer months. In winter you'll find it far out to sea off the east and west coasts of the US, where it gathers in huge flocks. For those autumn migrants who took a wrong turn on the flight to their coastal wintering grounds, the fresh-water Great Lakes are the next best thing to an ocean, so we are fortunate to have flocks of Long-tailed Ducks over-winter on Lake Michigan every year, as long as there is open water.
The striking white-and-black plumage that is the Long-tailed Duck's winter, non-breeding, attire, is eye-catching. And as the name indicates, the mature male sports two long tail feathers that he usually holds curled aloft. The females and the young males are more subdued in tone and tail length, but even still, among a flock of other waterfowl floating off shore, the Long-tailed Duck is easy to pick out.
That is, if it will sit still on the surface long enough for you to find it. Because another example of this bird's hardiness is that it is a very powerful diver. In fact, it is the deepest-diving duck of all, hitting depths of as much as 200 feet, according to every source I read. (For reference, recreational divers with standard scuba gear do not go beyond 130 feet.) So when the Long-tailed Duck goes under on one of its hunts in search of invertebrates and small crustaceans, using its long tail as a rudder, it can be a long time before it surfaces. A hunting Long-tailed Duck spends much more time under water than above.
This sometimes results in some pleasant surprises for a camera buff like myself. When I come upon a group of floating birds, I try of course to identify all the species that I see present. When I'm confident I found them all, and I'm ready to move on, I'll take a few photos to review later, to help confirm my IDs. It has happened more than once that when I get home and review those photos, I find a Long-tailed Duck that appears in one of the photos as if by magic. If you happen to be looking away during the split second when that deep-diving bird briefly comes up for air, you will miss it completely. Literally--it's now you see it, now you don't!
One more trick this bird has up its primaries is that--unlike most ducks--it changes into three costumes every year, instead of two. Here on Lake Michigan we will only see it in its winter plumage. By contrast, Canadians see it only in the summer, when it's at its chattiest, and wearing its breeding plumage. Obsessed as we humans are with the need to give everything a name of our liking, the ever-molting Long-tailed Duck reminds us that a name describes just one tiny slice of the thing it tries to describe. Whether we call it Oldsquaw, or a less provocative ho-hum name like Long-tailed Duck, our name can never capture the full spirit of this intrepid, deep-diving, long-tailed chatterbox duck.
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.