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.