Long-tailed Ducks: Not “Old-Squaw” or “Young-Brave”

Sat, 12/25/2021 - 7:30am

On December 26, 1921 Elizabeth Dickens recorded in her journal the following bird species observations: Loons calling, Canada Geese, Long-
tailed Ducks singing, Black Ducks, Horned Larks, European Starlings, Meadowlarks, Song Sparrow, and a Shrike. This journal entry was before
she started the annual tradition of the island-based Christmas census on December 26, which did not start until 1924.
Of course, many things have changed in the 100 years since that account. For one, we hardly ever see horned larks on the island anymore;
shrike sightings are rare; and, meadowlark sightings – although not rare – are few and far between. And, as the image of the actual journal entry
shows, old squaw was the name of the duck that we now know as long-tailed
In 2000 the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) committee on classification and nomenclature officially renamed the bird species (Clangula hyemalis) long-tailed duck. Until that date the bird was known in North America (not the rest of the world) as Oldsquaw. The change not only resulted in a universally known moniker, it put to rest a name that was culturally insensitive (racist, sexist, and ageist) and was – ironically – a
complete mismatch. The oldsquaw name was derived from the vocalization habit of the bird, and was interpreted to imply a group of garrulous, gossipy, chattering old women. Long-tailed ducks are in fact known for their “talkative” nature – note that Elizabeth Dickens records them as singing. But it is the young males of the species that provide all of the wonderful utterances. Enough said!
The long-tailed duck is one of the many wonderful winter ducks that can be seen (and heard) in our near shore waters. When conditions are just
right, long-tails can be seen close at hand. But you have to be patient and lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to see them from the shoreline – often bunched together and riding and diving at the crest of a wave. For me this has happened for the first time this fall. I have seen long-tailed ducks in the past, but only at a distance.
As a general statement, I just love the group of species that I refer to as winter sea ducks: scoters, buffleheads, long-tails, harlequins, and others. They always seem ebullient, jubilant and jaunty; and completely indifferent to the often frigid and churning of wind and wave. The following quotes found in E. F. Forbush’s “Birds of Massachusetts” captures the nature of the long-tailed duck perfectly and eloquently.

“As the autumn sun retreats southward and leaves the Arctic sea in cold and darkness, the hardy [long-tails] follow the retiring orb and so reach the shores of New England.
“As our boat with close-reefed sail leaped and plunged over the choppy seas, the piercing wind continually dashed chilling showers of spray over us until deck, sail and rigging were encased with a heavy coating of ice. But the happy birds swarming into the air in flight before us or diving or playing on either hand showed not a trace of ice upon their plumage. The sea is their element and they seem to joy in riding crested surges. After such a winter storm on our coast while the bellowing surf still beats madly on the rocks, one may see the vigorous [long-tailed ducks] riding on the face of a towering wave and diving in time to avoid the white and toppling crest – perfectly at home on the wintry sea. This species is full of life and vigor.
“[Long—tails] are perhaps our most loquacious ducks. Their resounding cries have been likened to the music of a pack of hounds.”
– E. F. Forbush, 1925
I have yet to hear long-tail ducks, but I hope to before the year is over. My challenge for this year’s Community Bird Census is to try to build a community list that includes sighting of all the species that Elizabeth Dickens saw on December 26, 1921 and includes reports of hearing loons calling and long-tailed ducks singing.
To help assemble the observations for this ambitious goal join the annual Community Bird Census on December 26. There are many ways to participate.
Community Bird Census is an annual event held on December 26 (traditionally the day that Elizabeth Dickens led the Christmas Bird Counts). This event encourages all who are interested in birds and enjoying the beauty of the island to spend part of the day keeping track of the birds they see and hear. The short-term result of the day’s observations is the compilation of an island-wide bird list comprised of the sightings of many community scientists. In the long term, these annual bird counts continue the work of Elizabeth Dickens and contribute to a much larger body of information.
All levels of participation are encouraged, from watching your bird feeder to traipsing around the island. For details about Community Bird Census, see the schedule below.

Feel free to participate as much or as little as you would like.
1. Meet at 9 a.m. at Sachem Pond, where a spotting scope will be available for some early morning duck watching, and join with others to make a plan for a day of birding.
2. Bird Walk led by Kim Gaffett at a location determined at 9 a.m. based on wind and weather.
3. During the middle of the day, participants will employ whatever means desirable to make a list of birds seen that day. The options for making these observations range from taking one or more walks, to watching your bird feeder from the warmth of your house.
4. At 4:00 p.m., reassemble (masked) at a location to be determined, to compare notes, to start to compile the community list, to share cider and cookies, and to revel in the stories of the day.
Anyone wishing to call in his or her Block Island observations may call Kim Gaffett at (401) 595-7055 or email kimgaffett@gmail.com.