Duck (Oldsquaw Duck)
The long-tailed duck is a truly northern species. Long-tails are common across the Arctic, from the treeline north to Ellesmere Island. The Inuit recognize them as one of the most typical birds of their landscape, therefore they have an important status in Inuit culture. They are associated with warmth and the end of the struggle for survival that characterizes the Arctic winter. In the early spring, as temperatures warm and seals come out to bask on ice floes, the Inuit rejoice at the availability of new sources of food. At the same time, the first flocks of long-tailed ducks arrive in the North, noisily pursuing courtship and breeding activities, and appearing "so full of joy". The joy spreads to those who sees them. "When the long-tails come to our land, that means the spring is here and will continue on. That meant that they will now be able to catch animals for food on a regular basis… The past winter had seen hard times where they had experienced death. As the long-tails start to arrive the danger of starvation is no longer imminent, as the seals will now start to bask on top of the ice… There will still be times when they will run short on food, but now they will be able to hunt any game animals much easier" (IOHP 246).
Long-tailed ducks played a fundamental role in the seasonal celebrations of the Inuit. Over the course of the year, new babies were assigned to groups according to when they were born. Those who were born in a skin tent the summer children were known as aggiaqjuit, long-tails. Those who were born in winter in an iglu, or snow house, were aqiggiit, ptarmigans. The long-tail was chosen to be the "mascot" of the summer team because it is the bird that is most commonly found in all of the Arctic in the summer. An elder explains, "The aggiaqjuit (long-tails) are numerous and can be seen in all the regions and the land... They can be seen all over the place even in the mountainous ranges, while some species cannot be found in certain areas, but not the aggiaqjuit. So it is only appropriate to use them as a symbol for summer birds" (IOHP 153).
Throughout the year, whenever games were played which required two teams, people often separated on the basis of "ptarmigans" versus long-tails. In the summer, the two teams would engage in ball games, with the long-tails trying to send the ball towards the water, while the ptarmigans attempted to bring it back towards the land, their preferred habitat. This division of teams was even more important during the period in January when the sun was beginning to return. At this time, celebrations were held in large communal igloos called qaggi. "Ptarmigans" and "long-tails" would engage in song battles, with representatives of each trying to outdo the other by performing humorous drum songs, trying to embarrass the other team. "They use to try and outdo each other and just try to get one side to get embarrassed, so if one side did get embarrassed they would be laughed at and just have a jolly good time, as the team that was embarrassed would make attempts to get back at the other side". One such song follows with its explanation:
My father [a "ptarmigan"] had a song aimed at the aggiaqjuit. In the winter time they used to experience a period of hardship because their hunting equipment was crude. Even with the hardship they had to endure that period, they always looked to the future for they knew once the period of hardship had passed, they would recover when the weather got warmer. So when the temperatures were warm enough the seals would start to bask on the ice, which was an indication of recovery from their hardships, and it was at this time the gathering of food commenced. It was also at this time the aggiaqjuit started to arrive, and they would appear to be so full of joy. Once they have arrived they would start to go after each other and mate. Once they start to mate some will even have difficulty to fly off, so my father composed a song reflecting the behaviour of these aggiaqjuit.
When we have survived the worst and the future
The long-tailed ducks have now returned.
As they return, they are full of joyous spirit.
This long-tail having heard of the joyous spirit,
having heard, he could not resist to join in.
He overdid it so he got sore muscles.
While he rested and waited for the sore muscles
to go away,
His wing tips fell off.
While he rested and wait for the sore muscles
to go away,
His tail feathers fell off.
As the song goes, the long-tail tried so hard to join in the fun that he got sore muscles on account of it and the next thing that he found out when he attempted to fly away was that he could not fly for his wing tips had fallen off (IOHP 153).
Another short song, entitled "The Ptarmigan Sings to the Long-tailed Duck", pictures a ptarmigan and a long-tailed duck engaging in the exchange of personal insults that characterizes Inuit song contests. In this case, the ptarmigan emphasizes some characteristic attributes of the long-tail. Hearing such little poems was an excellent way for young Inuit to learn some of the important traits of the animals they hunted.
You great long-tails That love to splash about Ducking down Into the wet water. You birds That hover in flight And never fly fast And straight ahead (Lewis 1971).
Of the three duck species in the Igloolik area, the long-tail is the smallest and the most wary, often acting as a sentry for the less-vigilant eiders. It lives on small fish (uugaq, cod, and kanajuq, sculpin) as well as on bugs and amphipods (kinguit). Although they apparently tasted all right, or at least "better than the loons", long-tails were rarely hunted for food by the Inuit (IOHP 428; Randa 1994).