A sea duck made a rare appearance on the Great Plains this past week. The long-tailed duck, a hen, was among a flock of ruddy ducks that popped in for a visit at Capitol Beach Lake in Lincoln.
I’m confident the longtail didn’t choose the 300-acre private lake because of the water’s high saline content. But it must have felt right at home when it hit the water. Longtails are the quintessential ocean duck, and Capitol Beach Lake sits atop one of the salt basins that was instrumental in the early settlement of the city.
The long-tailed duck was the focal point of a tight-jawed feud that simmered for years before finally being brought to boil in 2000. The bickering centered on the duck’s official name—oldsquaw. One side thought the name should be changed because it was offensive to Native Americans. The other side thought oldsquaw was the perfect name.
Longtails are the most vocal of sea duck species. The Sea Duck Joint Venture likens their call to a melodious yodel. But they love communal living during the breeding season, and large numbers build their nests near each other. The “melodious yodeling” becomes a yammering din, which early settlers said reminded them of gossipy, elderly, Native American women. Hence the name oldsquaw.
One problem: It’s the male longtail that does most of the yammering. Another problem: The fowl had always been named long-tailed duck in Europe. American ornithologists finally settled the matter by saying oldsquaw wasn’t considered a negative name to Native Americans, but they wanted uniformity. To join the rest of the world, they officially changed the name to long-tailed duck in 2000.
The squabble over the name change has cooled since 2000, but old duck hunters still defiantly call them oldsquaws.
Only males have the long tails—two feathers that are nearly 6 inches in length. According to Audubon, longtails are often the most abundant bird in the Arctic. Large flocks gather far out at sea, and many spend the winter on ice-free northern waters such as the Bering Sea, Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes. Those that migrate farther south in North America winter along the northern Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
A few disoriented longtails manage to find their way through the Great Plains region each fall and spring, according to Joel Jorgensen of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, who identified the rare visitor for me.
They prefer to eat mussels, clams, periwinkles and crustaceans, along with some small fish. They gather food mostly at depths of 30 feet or less, but dives of 200 feet have been documented. Partial wingflaps help propel the dives.