Long Island pays holiday tribute to waterfowl legacy with "duck lighting" ceremony


FLANDERS, N.Y. Who needs Rockefeller Center when you have the Big Duck?

It was 1931 when construction workers in soon-to-be Rockefeller Center put up a modest Christmas tree to begin what would become one of New York City's greatest traditions.

That same year, a Long Island farmer decided to build a giant duck-shaped shop where he could sell fresh ducks and eggs by the side of the road.

Seventy-five years later, as tens of thousands of people watch Christina Aguilera, Sting and Bette Midler perform Wednesday at the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting, a much smaller group will gather 75 miles to the east to light the Big Duck.

A volunteer fire department, a middle-school choir and local baseball team mascot named "Quacker Jack" will light up the 20-foot-tall duck. Santa Claus will arrive atop a fire truck and youngsters will sing carols adapted to a duck theme: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" becomes "Big Duck the White Winged Waterfowl."

The duck, which measures 30 feet from beak to tail and features Model-T taillights for eyes, will be adorned with a huge wreath around its neck and festive holiday garland and lights surrounding its base.

"It's just a quirky type event," said Emily Lauri of the Suffolk County Parks Department, which now maintains the Big Duck as a year-round attraction.

Having once graced a 1987 New Yorker magazine cover, the Big Duck is one of Long Island's best-known landmarks and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, visitors can purchase duck memorabilia (called duck-a-bilia), obtain travel and tourism information, and perhaps learn a little about the legacy of the Long Island duck.

In the 1950s and '60s, Long Island boasted about 70 duck farms, raising 6.5 million birds annually and contributing two-thirds of the nation's duck output, said Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. The industry thrived because of Long Island's abundance of freshwater streams, a conducive climate and its proximity to metropolitan centers.

Today, in part because of soaring property values and environmental crackdowns, Long Island is down to three farms that raise about 2 million ducks annually about 10 percent of the nation's output, worth $25 million in economic benefit.

The duck is such a recognizable icon on Long Island that it was adopted as the identity of two professional sports teams an Eastern Hockey League franchise that operated from 1959 to 1973, and an Atlantic League baseball team that started in 2000.