This sea duck species has undergone significant population declines on Puget Sound. Increasing development in the Puget Sound region has led to more disturbance, pollution, and degradation of foraging areas used by sea ducks. Reduction of marine forage (primarily herring spawn) may be reducing populations in some areas.
Long-tailed duck is managed as a migratory game bird. Sea ducks are managed under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council.
Description and Range
Long-tailed duck are about 20 ½ inches in length and weigh 2 pounds. They are a slim, brightly plumaged sea duck. They are smaller than the scoters or eiders. Males have a conspicuous long tail.
Their flight is swift and low with constantly changing flock formations.
The long-tailed duck is one of the most vocal of ducks; males ("drakes") have a constantly heard, loud, pleasant caloo, caloo.
For more information on how to identify this species, check out the Sea Duck Joint Venture "Meet the Sea Ducks."Also check out the Resources section.
Ecology and life history
The long-tailed duck spends most of the year (approximately nine months) primarily in coastal marine waters. Only during the breeding season does it frequent shallow wetlands of low-lying tundra, ranging southward to the northern edge of the boreal forest. Non-breeding and molting birds tend to use deeper ponds and lakes and nearshore marine areas.
Like other sea ducks, long-tailed ducks are believed to reach sexual maturity when they are two or three years old, are long-lived, nest later than most ducks, and on average have low reproductive output.
Birds depart coastal molting areas from late August through November and then spend most of their annual cycle on wintering areas in the Puget Sound area.
Their winter diet is varied but chiefly animal matter, including bottom-dwelling crustaceans, clams, mussels, small fish, and snails. Most feeding is in water less than 30 feet deep, but the long-tailed duck has been documented to dive more than 200 feet, deeper than any other duck.
The long-tailed duck ranges along both coasts and the Great lakes. They breed in arctic and subarctic wetlands from the west coast of Alaska across most of northern Canada.
Approximately 200,000 long-tailed ducks are thought to breed in Alaska. Population numbers have declined about 80 percent in Alaska since surveys began in 1957, although numbers have recently stabilized.
Long-tailed ducks winter along the Pacific coast from the Bering Sea to California. Some birds from Alaska may winter in the northern Bering Sea and across to Russia. The current Puget Sound population is estimated at approximately 5,200 long-tailed ducks. Puget Sound populations have declined 39 percent since 1994 to 1996, and as much as 94 percent since 1978 to 1979.
For maps of world-wide distribution and other species’ information, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
Sensitivity to climate change
Very limited information is available regarding sensitivity of long-tailed ducks to climate change, particularly in Washington. Generally, long-tailed ducks may exhibit some sensitivity to climate change due to potential impacts on food availability. Increases in temperature or sea level as well as changes in water chemistry that affect food sources such as herring, crustaceans, mussels, etc. could impact this species.
Exposure to climate change
- Increased ocean temperatures
- Sea level rise
- Declines in dissolved oxygen and pH
Rules and seasons
For current rules about hunting long-tailed duck in the state, be sure to check the Washington Game Bird and Small Game hunting regulations.
Sea ducks are game species, managed under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council. The Pacific Flyway Council is an administrative body that forges cooperation among public wildlife agencies for the purpose of protecting and conserving migratory birds in western North America. The Council is composed of the director or an appointee from the public wildlife agency in each state and province in the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. Washington waterfowl hunters pursuing sea ducks in western Washington are required to record and report all harvest effort and activities, including long-tailed duck.
WDFW has various game management plans to track populations and harvest of games species around the state, including waterfowl. These plans have information about harvest statistics from recent years, and the department's long-term vision and goals for a variety of species.
In early 2003, WDFW formed the Washington Waterfowl Advisory Group (WAG) to increase citizen involvement in the conservation and management of Washington’s waterfowl resources. This group has members from a broad representation of waterfowl hunters throughout the state. To learn about the WAG, contact the WDFW Waterfowl Section at (360) 902-2515 or visit the WAG webpage.
Conservation Threats and Actions Needed
- Resource information collection needs
- Threat: Lack of Information on status and distribution.
- Action Needed: Conduct annual winter inventory.
- Threat: Lack of information on population demography.
- Action Needed: Conduct periodic recruitment and species composition surveys.
- Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation.
- Threat: Development impacts of Puget Sound on the marine environment.
- Action Needed: Document and address limiting factors.
See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.
Our Conservation Efforts
Midwinter Aerial Seabird Surveys
WDFW conducts survey flights over a period of several days from November through February annually to monitor the abundance, trends, and distribution of sea ducks and other marine birds in the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S. portion of the Salish Sea). Learn more about this research on the project's page.
Sea Duck Joint Venture Species Fact Sheet – Long-tailed Duck
WDFW. 2013. Washington Sea Duck Management Strategies - Draft Report to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.16 pgs.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Overview: Long-tailed Duck
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Aerial Observer’s Guide to North American Waterfowl
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Ducks at a Distance: A Waterfowl Identification Guide
- Sea Duck Joint Venture - A Conservation Partnership under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan
- Cornell Lab All About Birds - Long-tailed Duck
- eBird Northwest - Long-tailed Duck