Male, non-breeding (winter) plumage.
  • Male in winter plumage.
  • Male, non-breeding (winter) plumage.
  • Male in winter plumage.
  • Winter plumage
  • Male, breeding (summer) plumage.
  • Juvenile

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Long-tailed Duck

Clangula hyemalis
The swans, geese and ducks are mid-sized to large birds most commonly found on or near water. Most have plump bodies, long necks and short wings. Most feed while on the water, diving or merely tilting their bodies so that their heads and necks are submerged to search for fish, plants and invertebrates. Washington representatives of the order all belong to one family:
The waterfowl family is represented in Washington by two distinct groups—the geese and swans, and the ducks. Whistling-ducks are also considered a distinct subfamily, and, although they have not been sighted in Washington in many years, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks have been recorded historically in Washington and remain on the official state checklist. All members of the waterfowl family have large clutches of precocial young. They hatch covered in down and can swim and eat on their own almost immediately after hatching.
Fairly common winter coast. Rare east.
  • Puget Sound Seabird Survey

General Description

Formerly known in the United States as the Oldsquaw, the Long-tailed Duck is a distinctive sea duck with a short bill and heavy body. The short, pointed, all-dark wings of the Long-tailed Duck are evident in all sexes and plumages. In breeding plumage, the male has a long, black tail-plume, a white rump and belly, and black breast. The head and back are black, with brown shoulders and a white patch around the eye. In winter the brown on the back is replaced by white, and the head is white with a gray cheek-patch. In spring, the female is gray with a white rump, and white around the eye and at the nape of the neck. In winter, she has a white face with dark crown and cheek-patch. The juvenile is similar to the female--gray with white, although it has more white on its face than the female.


Long-tailed Ducks breed in shallow tundra ponds and lakes. During other seasons, Long-tailed Ducks can be found on the ocean over sandy substrates. They prefer sheltered water, but can be found on the open ocean as well.


Long-tailed Ducks dive and swim under water, and, while they propel themselves with their feet like other ducks, their wings are sometimes partly opened under water. Most feeding is done within 30 feet of the surface, but they are capable of diving more than 200 feet below the surface. Long-tailed Ducks fly low with stiff and shallow wing-beats, often tilting from side to side.


For Long-tailed Ducks at sea, mollusks and crustaceans are the main source of food. In summer, aquatic insects, other aquatic invertebrates, and some plant material are eaten.


Most female Long-tailed Ducks first breed at the age of two. Pair bonds are established in the winter, or during the spring migration, and last until incubation begins. The nest is located on dry ground close to the water, often hidden in the undergrowth or among rocks. It is a depression lined with plant material and great quantities of down that the female adds to the nest after she begins laying. She usually lays from 6 to 11 eggs and incubates them for 24 to 29 days. Shortly after hatching, the young leave the nest and can swim and dive well. The female tends them and may dislodge food items for them when she is diving, but they feed themselves. They first fly at 35 to 40 days.

Migration Status

Migration takes place late in the fall and early in the spring. Long-tailed Ducks may travel in large flocks and fly very high when going over land, although they usually migrate along coastlines. Migration may be a short distance from the inland breeding area straight out to the coast, or may be a long trip down the coastline. On the West Coast, however, the majority of the population winters in the Bering Sea.

Conservation Status

In the high Arctic, Long-tailed Ducks are often the most abundant bird, with a population in the millions. Such dense concentrations are vulnerable to oil spills and other contamination of the northern seas. When diving, many are caught in fishing nets and drown.

When and Where to Find in Washington

In Washington from mid-October to early May, Long-tailed Ducks are usually found in deep salt water, sometimes intermingled with scoters. They are common on the coast and in north Puget Sound, and are less common in the southern end of the sound. Large flocks can often be observed off Point Roberts and in Bellingham Bay. They have also been seen on ponds and lakes in eastern Washington and in the Okanogan Valley.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest CoastUUUUU RUU
Puget TroughCCCUU FCC
North Cascades
West Cascades
East Cascades
Canadian Rockies
Blue Mountains
Columbia PlateauRRR RRR

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern