Long-Tailed Duck

Clangula hyemalis

One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.

Long-Tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck

Female Long-tailed Duck

Female Long-tailed Duck

Juvenile Long-tailed Duck

Juvenile Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck in-flight

Long-tailed Duck in-flight

Appearance & Identification

What do Long-tailed Ducks look like?

Long-tailed ducks are a relatively small species of diving duck, with a steep forehead and a short, stubby bill. As the species name might suggest, extended tail feathers (seen only on the male) are an instantly recognizable feature.

Breeding males are generally dark, with long black tail plumes, a black breast, neck, throat, and flanks, and light brown wings. The undertail area is a contrasting white. The breeding male long-tailed duck’s face features a large white blotchy patch around each eye but is otherwise black. Its bill is mainly black, with a pink band towards the tip.

Molting takes place after breeding when they become patchy black and white all over before acquiring their distinctive winter plumage.

In winter, males become paler than their dark summer breeding plumage, with a white head, throat, upper wings, belly and undertail. A buff patch is visible next to the eye which darkens to a deeper black-brown on the side of the neck. Across the breast is a wide dark band, and the back and tail are black, with a brownish-black tinge to the lower wings. The bill is black and has a wide orange band near the tip.

Female long-tailed ducks are small and compact and do not resemble males at all. In winter, they have stubby gray bills, brown eyes, a white eye patch and flanks, and a brownish-gray crown, wings, neck, rump, tail and breast. Their summer breeding plumage is darker, with less white on the face.

Juveniles resemble breeding females, but are paler, with brownish flanks and less-defined facial markings.

<p><strong>Long-tailed Duck Male</strong></p>

Long-tailed Duck Male

<p><strong>Long-tailed Duck Female</strong></p>

Long-tailed Duck Female

How big are Long-tailed Ducks?

The entire length of a breeding male long-tailed duck can be up to an impressive 60 cm (24 in), although the long tail plumes account for 13 cm (5 in) of this length. Female long-tailed ducks lack the extended tail feathers and are considerably smaller and more compact than the males of the species.

  • Length: 58 cm to 60 cm (23 in to 24 in), including 13 cm (5 in) of tail
  • Wingspan: 73 cm to 79 cm (29 in to 31 in)
  • Weight: 520 g to 950 g (1.1 lb to 2.1 lb)
Long-tailed Duck standing on rocks in coastal habitat

Long-tailed Duck standing on rocks in coastal habitat

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Long-tailed Duck make?

Long-tailed ducks are dubbed the most vocal sea duck, and are known for their ‘talkative’ nature and constant chattering. Males make a particularly melodious ‘ow ow owoolet’ call.

Juvenile Long-tailed Duck chattering

Juvenile Long-tailed Duck chattering


What do Long-tailed Ducks eat?

Long-tailed ducks follow a mainly animal-based diet, with mussels, cockles, clams, crabs, and small fish among the chief prey caught. Food is caught by diving underwater and picking items off the ocean or lake floor. In summer, invertebrates, insects, and their larvae are of great importance, while on wintering grounds their diet becomes more diverse, including crustaceans, fish, fish eggs and molluscs.

What do Long-tailed Duck chicks eat?

Young long-tailed ducks are led to water around 24 hours after hatching by their mother and feed on surface material until they master the art of diving. If food resources are low, the female will take her young to different foraging sites. Fairy shrimp and water fleas are the most common early prey.

Long-tailed Duck foraging near to the rocks

Long-tailed Duck foraging near to the rocks

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Long-tailed Duck?

Long-tailed ducks breed in Arctic tundra and taiga regions around the globe, on lakes and coastal sites at latitudes as far north as 80 degrees. As winter approaches, they head south to coastal marine waters, preferring sandy shelving beaches, but may also be found a short distance inland, on large freshwater lakes.

What is the range of a Long-tailed Duck?

Long-tailed ducks have a circumpolar range. Breeding grounds are found on the Arctic coasts of Canada, Alaska and Greenland. Across the Atlantic, long-tailed ducks breed in Iceland and Norway and across the far northern region of Russia, throughout eastern Siberia.

Their winter range is located further south, as far as the United Kingdom, the Black and Caspian Seas, and the Korean peninsula, where they spend the non-breeding season in maritime waters rather than on land. In North America, winter populations of long-tailed ducks are present along both coasts, as far south as South Carolina in the east and British Columbia in the west.

Where do Long-tailed Ducks live?

Eurasia has the largest population of long-tailed ducks, with up to 4.6 million pairs in northern Europe, Russia, and Siberia, in particular Norway and Finland. Up to 2.7 million pairs breed in North America, and a further 100,000 to 1 million pairs breed in East Asia.

In winter, the densest concentrations of long-tailed ducks are found in the Aleutian Islands, where between 700,000 and 1 million individuals gather post-breeding. The Baltic Sea was once a winter stronghold, welcoming over 4 million long-tailed ducks annually, but this number has shown a steep decline since the 1980s.

How rare are Long-tailed Ducks?

The global population of long-tailed ducks is estimated at between 3.2 and 3.75 million, so statistically, they are not an uncommon species. However, due to their specific maritime habitat requirements and breeding grounds in largely inaccessible regions in Arctic tundras, sightings are rare in comparison to many other waterfowl species.

Long-tailed Duck resting by a lake

Long-tailed Duck resting by a lake

Where can you see Long-tailed Ducks in the US?

Long-tailed ducks breed throughout Alaska, and winter populations gather along the state’s southern coasts and offshore islands. The northeastern coast of the United States offers good opportunities for winter sightings, as far south as South Carolina, and to the west, the Pacific Coast from the border with Canada off the shores of Washington is also a prime long-tailed duck wintering ground.

Where can you see Long-tailed Ducks in Canada?

Long-tailed ducks breed in the high Arctic regions of Canada and in winter, while many move to the marine waters off British Columbia’s Pacific Coast, large numbers head inland and can be seen on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Where can you see Long-tailed Ducks in the UK?

Overwintering long-tailed ducks in UK waters are mainly found off the coasts of northern Scotland and around the Shetland and Orkney islands between October and March.

Up to 13,500 individuals arrive each autumn and occasional sightings are reported around much of the UK’s coastline, with the exception of South Wales, north Devon, and western Scotland.

Female Long-tailed Duck in the water stretching her wings

Female Long-tailed Duck in the water stretching her wings

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Long-tailed Ducks live?

The average lifespan of long-tailed ducks is around 5 years, with first-time breeding from two years onwards. Older individuals have been recorded through banding programmes, including one that reached 20 years of age in 1987.

What are the predators of Long-tailed Ducks?

Avian predators of adult long-tailed ducks and their young include birds of prey such as northern harriers, gyrfalcons, and snowy owls, as well as herring gulls.

On breeding grounds, parasitic jaegers may raid nests for eggs and newly hatched ducklings, and Arctic and red foxes may also destroy nests. On the water, predatory fish, such as northern pike, pose a threat to the youngest ducklings when they first enter the water.

Are Long-tailed Ducks protected?

The United States Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918 and the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 offer protection to wild long-tailed ducks against being injured, killed, or captured, or their nests, eggs and young being disturbed or traded. In North America, hunting long-tailed ducks is permitted with seasonal limits and maximum daily bag numbers.

Are Long-tailed Ducks endangered?

Globally, long-tailed ducks are classified as a Vulnerable species, due to severe declines in the winter population recorded in the Baltic Sea from the 1990s to the late 2000s. In the UK, they are designated with Red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.

Why are Long-tailed Ducks endangered?

Long-tailed ducks being caught as bycatch in gillnets is a major cause of mortality each year, particularly in the Baltic Sea. Oil pollution and degradation of coastal habitats is another major cause for concern. Drainage and peat and sand extraction impact the natural food resources long-tailed ducks rely on, including invertebrates that live on the seafloor.

Long-tailed Duck swimming in a harbour

Long-tailed Duck swimming in a harbour

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Long-tailed Ducks nest?

Nesting long-tailed ducks create a shallow depression on open dry ground, close to water, and partly concealed by shrubs or other nearby vegetation. Most pairs are solitary during the breeding season, choosing nest sites away from other pairs, although occasional loose nesting groups may form.

Female long-tailed ducks choose the nest site after prospecting visits earlier in the breeding season. Nests are not built in advance, and construction begins only when the first egg is laid. Females gather materials from nearby, lining the scrape with leaves from dwarf birch and dwarf willow and some downy feathers. Grass, sedge, and heather may also be added.

When do Long-tailed Ducks nest?

The breeding season begins in May, with eggs usually laid from June onwards. After incubation, males leave the nesting grounds and have no further input in raising ducklings. They head to molting grounds where they shed their breeding plumage and undergo a change in coloring into their basic winter plumage.

Females incubate alone, for between 24 and 29 days, and ducklings leave the nest within the first day when they are led to water by the female and begin foraging for themselves immediately.

What do Long-tailed Duck eggs look like?

Eggs laid by long-tailed ducks are pale gray to olive in color, measuring 54 mm by 38 mm (2.1 in by 1.5 in). Between 6 and 9 eggs are laid and one brood per year is raised.

Do Long-tailed Ducks mate for life?

Seasonally monogamous pairs are formed by long-tailed ducks early in the year, with pairs forming on wintering grounds ahead of spring migration. There is evidence that long-tailed duck pairs may reunite on wintering grounds, several months after males desert the incubating female to molt earlier in the summer.

It is unknown whether all pairs remain together to breed for more than one season, although some records do suggest this may happen occasionally.

Female Long-tailed Duck swimming with her ducklings

Female Long-tailed Duck swimming with her ducklings


Are Long-tailed Ducks aggressive?

Male long-tailed ducks may show territorial behavior when breeding and are intolerant of any other pairs entering their patch. Male long-tailed ducks will target an intruding female and chase her off, possibly hoping that the male will then follow.

Physical confrontation is unlikely and challenges to threats are usually limited to posturing and chasing. Females are protective and defensive over their young, driving away any threat to their ducklings.

Where do Long-tailed Ducks sleep at night?

Overnight roosts of long-tailed ducks are found out at sea, where large groups gather offshore after dusk each evening.

Long-tailed Duck resting in coastal habitat

Long-tailed Duck resting in coastal habitat


Do Long-tailed Ducks migrate?

A migratory species, long-tailed ducks breed in far northern latitudes within the Arctic Circle and head south to maritime waters once their breeding grounds become too inhospitable to survive in as winter approaches.

Some resident populations may be present in parts of Alaska and around Hudson Bay, but most long-tailed ducks migrate relatively short distances. Returning to the same breeding sites is not uncommon, and the reuse of a previous nest is regularly observed.

Where do Long-tailed Ducks migrate?

Long-tailed ducks leave their Arctic breeding grounds when waters begin to freeze over, and head south to frost-free coastal areas. Some may reach as far south as Turkey and Greece, although most spend winters off the coasts of the north-eastern US and in northern Europe.

Female Long-tailed Duck in flight over the sea

Female Long-tailed Duck in flight over the sea


What was the Long-tailed duck called?

The previous North American name for the long-tailed duck was ‘oldsquaw’.

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Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Clangula hyemalis


Ducks, geese and swans

Conservation status:




58cm to 60cm


73cm to 79cm


520g to 950g

Learn more about the Long-Tailed Duck

Other birds in the Ducks, geese and swans family

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