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Oldsquaws Overhead

Witness Nantucket Island's amazing twice-daily flight of 200,000 squawking ducks! Nantucket is an island with a rich maritime history, cobblestone streets, quaint cottages, and lovely moors and beaches. It is also the winter Oldsquaw (Long-tailed Duck) capital of North America.

The Oldsquaw is a beautiful duck in its white and black winter plumage. Like the other common long-tailed duck, the Northern Pintail, it is elegant and sleek, with a long, pointed tail. Unlike the pintail, the Oldsquaw is almost purely a saltwater duck in wintertime. And unlike most other ducks, Oldsquaws prefer their own company and typically are seen in pure flocks.

Nantucket Island, in the Atlantic 30 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is a favorite winter home for Oldsquaws. Every day, just after dawn and just before dusk, 200,000 or more Oldsquaws make a short migration flight between their nightly quarters in Nantucket Sound to the north and their feeding grounds on the Nantucket Shoals to the south. This twice-daily passage, best viewed before sunset from the southwestern shore of the island (Cisco Beach and Madaket are good spots), is one of the ornithological highlights of the Northeast. The ducks alter their exact course from night to night. When they are far out to sea they look like plumes of smoke blowing in a nearly endless stream along the horizon and in front of the setting sun. On other nights they fly right over the shore, often low enough so their cacophonous squawking can be heard. This spectacular event generally lasts from November through February.

Oldsquaws feed mainly on small mollusks and crustaceans that they scoop up from the ocean floor. The Nantucket Shoals are the perfect feeding grounds for Oldsquaws because they are shallow and loaded with food. Oldsquaws know what they like to eat, and when they find it they can really go to town -- there is a record of one that had over 1,700 mollusks in its stomach!

Oldsquaws are extremely vocal, and are certainly the most loquacious of all ducks. The males, in particular, are always vocalizing. They call all through the year, they call day and night, they call whether alone or in massive flocks, they call on the water, on land, and in flight. Inwinter, when the males are actively shaking and tossing their heads and pointing their tails skyward trying to attract a mate, the combination of displays and calls can be mind-boggling.

The name Oldsquaw refers to the supposed similarity of the calls to the sounds made by a group of conversing female Native Americans. That is hardly a fair deal, considering the male ducks do most of the talking. Although Oldsquaw is the official English name here (in Europe it is Long-tailed Duck), this species has gone by many colloquial names through the years and across the continent. Many names were coined in imitation of the birds' common calls, "ow-ow-owlee" and "caloocaloo." Here are a few of those names: Cockawee, Coween, Ha-ha-way, Jack-owly, Jay-eye-see, Quandy, Scoldenore, Sou-sou-sally, South-south-southerly, Mammy Duck, Old Granny, Old Mammy, Old Molly, and Old Wife. There were even names especially coined for the drakes: Old Billy and Old Injun.

-- Brian Cassie