Our Bird Neighbors – Old Squaw

(Clangula hyemalis)


Length—Variable, according to development of tail—18 to 23 inches.

Male—In winter: Blackish on back, breast, and tail, whose four middle feathers are long and narrow; sides of the head grayish brown; rest of head, neck all around, upper back, shoulders, and underneath, white; no speculum on grayish wings. Bill with large orange-colored patch; feet dusky blue; In summer: Sides of head white; top of head, throat, breast above and below, back and shoulders, black; white underneath. Tail longer than in winter.

Female—No elongated feathers in tail, which consists of four-teen feathers coming to a point; head, neck, and upper parts, dusky brown, with grayish patch around the eye and one on side of neck; breast grayish, shading to white below; the feathers on the upper parts more or less edged with buff in summer.

Range—” In North America, south to the Potomac and the Ohio (more rarely to Florida and Texas) and California; breeds northward.”—A. O. U.

Season—Common winter resident in northern United States; November to April.

Like a crowd of gossiping old women these ducks gabble and scold among themselves all the year round, for in winter, when most voices are hushed, they are the noisiest birds that visit us. In summer, they nest so far north that none but Arctic travellers may hope to study them. Mr. George Clarke, of the Peary expedition, writes of ” the old squaw’s clanging call’ ringing out from the drifting ice cakes where the drakes glided about at no great distance from their brooding mates. South, south, southerly, is the cry some people with more lively imaginations than accuracy of ear have heard; but the Indians were nearer right when they ” called down ” this high flyer with a hah-ha-way, part of the full cry written by Mr. Mackay as o-onco-onc-ough, egh-ough-egh. The other part is not very different from the honk of a goose. Most of the duck’s popular names, as well as its scientific one, allude to its noisy, talkative habit. At evening, and toward spring when the choice of mates involves great discussion and quarrelling, they make more noise than perhaps all our other sea fowl combined.

The plumage of this duck varies so much with age, season, and sex, that it is well we have some pronounced characteristics to help us in naming our bird correctly. The long tail feathers of the drake are its most striking feature; but the obscure-looking duck has little to distinguish her from the female harlequin, except her white abdomen, which is usually concealed under water.

When migrating from the icy regions that they haunt after all other ducks have left for the south, the old squaws proceed by degrees no faster than Jack Frost compels; so that in season as in plumage they are apt to be exceedingly variable, an open winter keeping them north until late, and a cold autumn driving them from the ice-bound waters to seek their fish, mollusks, and water wrack in the open channels of our larger lakes and rivers and the inlets of the sea. Maritime ducks these certainly are by preference; famous divers and swimmers; strong, swift flyers; noisy, restless, lively fellows, that live in a state of happy commotion; gregarious at all seasons, and strongly in evidence where-ever they find their way.

There can be no excuse for killing these fish eaters for their flesh, which is rank and apparently in the very prime of toughness throughout their stay here; but they are clothed with particularly thick, fine, lively feathers that are in great demand for pillows. These form an almost invulnerable armor one would think, yet great quantities of old squaws’ down and feathers are bought by upholsterers every year. At the north the mother herself pulls out some of her feathers to cover her pale bluish eggs, concealed in a rude nest in grasses or under some low bush near the shore. When wounded, as the duck flies low and very swiftly along the water, it instantly dives from the wing, according-to Mr. Mackay. He tells of seeing many of them towering, ” usually in the afternoon, collecting in mild weather in large flocks if undisturbed, and going up in circles so high as to be scarcely discernible, often coming down with a rush and great velocity, a portion of the flock scattering and coming down in a zig-zag course similar to the scoters when whistled down.”

The Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), also called Lords and Ladies, comes down to our more northern coasts of sea and large inland lakes only when ice has closed its feeding grounds at the north; but no clanging call invites our attention when these gay masqueraders appear on the scene, tricked out in black, white, blue, and reddish brown applied in stripes and spots; and as they keep well out from shore to hunt in our open waters, few get a good look at their fantastic coats before they return to the north to nest. The female can scarcely be distinguished from the female old squaw, except by her dusky under parts. A harlequin’s flesh is dark and unpalatable, for fishy food is its staple, and no one not hard pressed by hunger would care to eat it. From the characteristics of habit that distinguish all ducks of this subfamily, the harlequin differs little, except in living near rushing, dashing streams of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains and northward during the nesting season. Six or more yellowish or greenish buff eggs are laid in hollow stumps near the water; and the fact that the young ducklings are not swept away by the swift current of the stream they take to and live on, without returning to the nest once it is left, testifies to the remarkable propelling power of their feet. These ducks are most expert divers, too, and when alarmed will plunge like a grebe, and swim under water to parts unknown.