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Common Scoter

Melanitta nigra

The word scoter is often used to define northern sea ducks. There are six different species of scoter, all of which are monotypic and three of which are confined to North America. The Common Scoter like the Velvet Scoter can only be found in Europe and Asia whilst the Stejneger’s Scoter is a native of Asia alone.

Common Scoter

Common Scoter

Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Melanitta nigra


Ducks, geese and swans

Conservation status:




44cm to 54cm


79cm to 90cm


650g to 1.3kg

What does a Common Scoter look like?

The common scoter is a large billed, slim necked, social, sea duck. During the non-breeding season the adult male has an all black body with a purplish hue to the upper parts and dark grey tips to the primary and secondary flight feathers. The tail is long and often seen raised whilst the bird is in the water. The head is rounded and the large pointed bill is predominantly matt black with a yellow patch on the ridge of the upper mandible, commencing behind the nostrils and extending forwards towards, but not meeting, the tip. Legs and feet are a matt black or dark grey and the eyes are a very dark brown. During the summer breeding season the upperwing areas are more brownish in colour. Adult females are a similar basic shape to the male although smaller and with a less pronounced base to the bill. They have a predominantly sooty brown coloured body with a black crown and cap extending across the forehead and to just below the eyes, ending at the nape of the neck. The cheeks, lower facial area and neck are greyish white morphing into the dark brown body mid way down the neck. The bill is slate grey and lacks the male’s yellow nasal patch. The eyes are a lighter brown than the male and both feet and legs are a dark matt grey. The plumage of juveniles is similar to the female although generally paler, particularly across the underparts.

A Common Scoter

A Common Scoter

What does a Common Scoter sound like?

The sexes vocalise differently with the female using a deep growling or guttural noise whist the male issues a medium pitched repetitive whistle. Both birds will call with a sound similar to,’kyoo’ and large flocks will frequently vocalise together, particularly when taking off from water.

Female Common Scoter call

Stanislas Wroza, XC488103. Accessible at

Female Common Scoter

Female Common Scoter

What does a Common Scoter eat?

Diving down from the surface of the water, common scoters eat crustaceans, molluscs, worms, shellfish, small fish and occasionally aquatic plants and insects.

Common Scoter calling in the water

Common Scoter calling in the water


Breeding takes place in Southeast Greenland, Iceland, northern regions of the United Kingdom, across Scandinavia and east as far as north central Russia. Whilst many birds will remain year round within their breeding regions others migrate south to the United Kingdom and European Atlantic coasts down as far as West Africa. Vagrants have also occasionally been recorded turning up in North America.

A flock of Common Scoter

A flock of Common Scoter

Signs and Spotting tips

Whilst breeding takes place on land, generally close to water, the scoter can also be found in woodlands and inland treeless landscapes. Rivers and freshwater lakes will often attract a mother and ducklings but common scoters spend much of their time at sea frequently choosing sheltered bays where they can be seen riding the swells or sheltering from storms further out at sea. They are extremely social and congregate in large flocks. The male common scoter is more easily identifiable than the female being the only male species of scoters without any white markings. The large, wide yellow and black bill is also an obvious identification guide.

Common Scoter swimming in the water

Common Scoter swimming in the water


The breeding season extends from May to July and courtship often begins prior to this. Nests are hollows in the ground close to water, frequently located on islands free from predation or below overhanging undergrowth, where they are lined with vegetation and feathers. Normally the female will produce one clutch of 6 – 9 plain, cream coloured eggs, annually which she alone incubates for up to a month before hatching takes place. The male leaves the female early on during the incubation period, never to return. Fledging takes place after forty five to fifty days.

Melanitta nigra

Melanitta nigra

How long do Common Scoters live for?

The life expectancy for a common scoter is between ten to fifteen years.

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Similar birds to a Common Scoter

Other birds in the Ducks, geese and swans family

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