A female long-tailed duck has been paddling and flapping her way around Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo for the last week and a half, much to the delight of local bird watchers. Long-tailed ducks are named after the very long, slender tail feathers of the male ducks of this species.
These birds are fancy dressers in more ways than one. In addition to the elegant, long tails of the males, both males and females go through a complicated series of molts (shedding old feathers and replacing them with new ones) resulting in many different plumages throughout the year. Compare this to mallards, where the females look about the same all year and the males have just two outfits: a drab brown nonbreeding plumage worn only for a short period in late summer and a flashier breeding plumage worn for the rest of the year.
In fact, the series of partial and interrupted molts on long-tailed ducks is so complicated, it seems the experts aren’t quite sure how many plumages there are exactly. The Sibley Guide to Birds says that there are four plumages, whereas the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website says there are three. In any event, the experts agree that long-tailed ducks have a much more complicated wardrobe schedule than is typical.
Long-tailed ducks are expert divers, plunging as deep as 200 feet underwater in search of food. They eat a varied diet containing all sorts of things you’d encounter at the bottom of a pond, including aquatic invertebrates and fish and plant material.
In Illinois, the best place to see long-tailed ducks is on Lake Michigan. They typically stick to deep water and stay away from the shore, making it a special treat to be able to see this bird up close at Nature Boardwalk. While doing bird counts at the pond, my colleagues have seen the female long-tailed duck every day since November 9. Chances are, if you visit the boardwalk soon you’ll be able to see her too!
Lincoln Park Zoo President and CEO Kevin Bell recently wrote about seeing the long-tailed duck at the boardwalk, reporting this is the first of this species he has seen around the zoo.