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Long-tailed Duck Life History


Lakes and Ponds

Long-tailed Ducks breed on arctic tundra, often near freshwater wetlands. They spend the winter along ocean coasts and on large freshwater lakes. They can often be found far offshore, especially at night, and will often congregate in areas with extensive sea ice, using floe edges and large openings in the ice (known as polynyas).

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Aquatic invertebrates

Eats mostly invertebrates. On the tundra breeding grounds, they eat aquatic insects, tiny crustaceans such as fairy shrimp, fish eggs, and some plant matter. During winter in ocean waters, they eat marine crustaceans, mussels, small fish, and zooplankton, plucked from the bottom of the water column and accessed by impressively deep dives (to 200 feet deep). Occasionally feeds at night.

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Nest Placement


Long-tailed Ducks nest in small, often quite tight, clusters on islands or peninsulas in arctic lakes.

Nest Description

The female makes a shallow depression lined with dwarf willow or dwarf birch leaves. The first egg is buried under a layer of grasses and sedges; the female adds down feathers once the second egg is laid.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:6-9 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.9-2.4 in (4.8-6 cm)
Egg Width:1.4-1.6 in (3.6-4 cm)
Incubation Period:24-29 days
Nestling Period:1-2 days
Egg Description:Pale gray to olive.
Condition at Hatching:Downy and eyes open. Leave nest soon after they dry. Feed themselves immediately.
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Surface Dive

Long-tailed Duck is an active seaduck that spends most of its time on the water, except when forced to go to land to breed. A strong and deep diver, they feed on aquatic invertebrates that they glean from the bottom of the water column through dives of up to 200 feet. Unlike other ducks, Long-tailed Ducks do not use their feet to propel their dives, but they flap with partially opened wings. Though little information on pair-bonding exists, Long-tailed Ducks are thought to be monogamous, with pairs staying together for many breeding seasons. Males on territory in the Arctic often defend a small pond or a small portion of a larger pond, defending it with various head-shaking and bill-tossing displays. After mating, females leave the male’s territory and select the nest site, often in small clusters alongside other females. The males then leave to congregate at postbreeding molting areas. The females are left to raise the young. Ducklings are able to feed as soon as they hatch, though they are not proficient divers at first. Females will lead their broods to new ponds when food becomes scarce. While Long-tailed Ducks are fairly territorial in the breeding season, this is not the case during the winter. They can be highly social when not breeding, and occasionally form mixed flocks with other diving duck species.

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Common Bird in Steep Decline

Long-tailed Duck populations are declining, although the species' remote breeding grounds and offshore wintering areas complicate measurement of the rate of decline. Partners in Flight estimates a global population of 3.2 million, rates the species a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and classifies it as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. The primary conservation concerns for Long-tailed Ducks are unclear. These ducks are not widely hunted. Entanglement in fishing nets killed tens of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks in the 1950s, especially in the Great Lakes, but the current mortality due to nets is not known. Changes in ocean conditions due to climate change and overfishing may become important in the near future. Overfishing of herring may reduce the availability of food for overwintering birds on the West Coast. The species is vulnerable to lead exposure, and this may explain some recent population declines among nesting Long-tailed Ducks in Alaska.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Robertson, Gregory J. and Jean-Pierre L. Savard. (2002). Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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