The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
Eiders are large, solidly built sea ducks that vary tremendously in appearance depending on their age, sex, and the time of year.
Male eiders are boldly marked birds in the winter once they have moulted into pied plumage. At this time, the adult males develop a black belly, rump, tail and cap. The bill becomes an olive green to orange colour, and the rest of the body is white, except for the nape which takes an olive green hue. During the summer, male eiders have dark brown plumage and pale bills.
Female eiders retain a rich mottled brown and black colour throughout the year. Their bills are grey-brown in colour and their wings are whitish when seen from below in flight.
Juvenile male eiders only develop their bold winter plumage at three years of age, although they show progressively more white colouration during their first and second years.
Common eiders usually measure 50-71cm (19.5-28 in) in length. This makes them the largest duck species in the Northern hemisphere. Males are larger than females on average, but the difference is barely noticeable.
Eiders have a wingspan of 80-108cm (31-42 in). Their size varies across their circumpolar distribution, although the largest individuals have been recorded in Canada’s Hudson Bay.
Most eiders weigh between 1.2kg and 2.6kg (2.75-5.75lb). Egg-laden females can surpass 3kg (6.6lb), however. Male eiders tend to maintain similar body weights throughout the year.
Male eider ducks produce a dove-like call that is best described as a-hoo or woo-oo. A chorus of calling males produces a very pleasant sound indeed. Female eiders do not produce the same coo-ing call but a rather more duck-like croaking. Both sexes make a similar alarm call when threatened.
A flock of Eider ducks in flight
Eiders are diving ducks. They swim to depths of 10m (33ft) or more in search of marine molluscs, crustaceans, and urchins. Large prey is brought to the surface to be processed and swallowed.
Baby eiders are precocial, which means they are fully mobile and fully covered in down feathers when they hatch. The ducklings leave the nest after about a day and feed themselves on insects and small molluscs like periwinkles.
Female Eider duck with chicks
Eiders are marine birds that rarely venture inland. They usually occur in shallow coastal waters, often where there is a rocky shoreline. Eiders can persist in areas that are mostly covered with sea ice but only if there is enough open water in between for them to forage.
Common eiders have a circumpolar distribution, which means they occur right around the world in coastal areas of Europe, Asia, and North America. They are absent from some regions of northern Asia, however.
Eiders are true sea ducks that spend most of their lives in shallow coastal waters. When not diving for food, these birds spend much of their time sleeping and resting on the water's surface. At night, eiders may roost on the shore or on floating ice floes.
Eider in natural habitat of water
While eiders are declining in parts of their range, they still have a very large global population and can even be locally abundant in some areas.
During the summer, eiders can be seen all along the Scottish coast and south to Northumberland in the east. They are more widespread in the winter, occurring as far south as Cornwall.
Common eiders are known to nest as far south as Massachusetts in the contiguous United States. They are a common coastal bird throughout the year to the north in Maine as well as in Canada and Alaska.
Male and female Eider swimming on the water
The oldest eider on record lived to 35.5 years, and the next oldest bird was a male from eastern Canada that lived to nearly 23 years. Most eiders will not live quite as long, however. The estimated lifespan of adult females in North America is approximately 7 years.
Eider eggs and ducklings are vulnerable to several bird and mammal species. The following species commonly raid their nests:
Adult eider ducks have fewer natural enemies, although they can be particularly vulnerable when nesting and moulting. The following predators have been known to prey on adult eiders:
Eiders enjoy official protection in many parts of their range. They are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 In the United Kingdom. In the United States of America, common eiders are protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Common eiders have a global conservation status of ‘Near Threatened’. This means they are not officially endangered but are a species of concern due to declines in certain populations.
Close up of an Eider
Eiders are ground-nesting birds. They build their nests on gently sloping areas that are close to the water’s edge. The nest is usually built alongside some structure such as driftwood, rock, or living vegetation like trees and shrubs. Eider nests consist of a shallow scrape of about 25cm (10in) across and 7cm (2.7in) deep.
Female eiders line their nests with their own down feathers. The down provides excellent insulation to the eggs, and humans have been gathering these soft feathers from eider nests for centuries for use in blankets and clothing.
Female eider ducks lay a single brood of 3-8 green, olive, or brownish eggs. Each egg measures 63-88mm (2.5-3.5in) in length, 47-56mm (1.9-2.2 in) in width, and 72-136g (2.5-4.8oz).
Eiders do not usually mate for life, although they are monogamous for the duration of each breeding season and often for several consecutive seasons thereafter.
Four Eider eggs inside the nest
Eiders are generally peaceful and rarely show any serious aggression outside of the breeding season. They usually resolve their issues using body language like lifting the chin or extending the neck. When fights do occur, the wings are the weapons of choice, and males may strike each other to establish dominance.
Eiders are partial migrants, with some populations remaining in the same areas throughout the year. Populations that breed the furthest north tend to make the longest migrations to escape the thick winter ice.
Common Eider walking on the rocks
The derivation of the eider's common name is obscure, but their scientific name is certainly appropriate. Somateria mollissima translates loosely as ‘very soft woolly body’.
They may be large but eiders are officially known as ducks and not geese.
Adult eiders usually dive to depths of between 10m and 20m (33-66ft), although they have been recorded to reach depths of up to 42m (138ft).
The global population of eiders probably stands between three and four million individuals. There are an estimated 26,000 pairs of breeding eiders in the United Kingdom and a total of 60,000 individuals that overwinter each year.
About 40,000 common eiders breed in Maine and about 25,500 in Alaska, although the species breeds in much larger numbers in neighbouring Canada. About 181,000 individuals overwinter between Maine and Massachusetts.
A pair of Eiders resting on the shore
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
51cm to 71cm
80cm to 108cm
1.2kg to 2.8kg
The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
This large bird arrives on our shores from Iceland to overwinter in late September, returning northwards to breed from mid March onwards.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
Larger than the Common Scoter this elegant European diving duck spends much of its time at sea and is often seen in company with mixed flocks resting on the water’s surface far out from land.
Tundra Bean Goose
The tundra bean goose is the most common species of bean goose, and breeds on Russian tundra landscapes. Winters are spent grazing on open fields, marshes and agricultural land in western and central Europe and East Asia.
The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
Fast and erratic in flight, the Teal is the United Kingdom’s smallest wildfowl species. Despite occurring year-round in low numbers, birdwatchers are most likely to spot these tiny ducks in the winter when large numbers arrive from abroad.
Taiga Bean Goose
Taiga bean geese are a common sight on northern taiga marshes of Siberia and northern Scandinavia in spring and summer, before heading south into Europe each winter. Several hundred individuals spend winters in the UK, with rare vagrant visitors occasionally reported in North America.
One of seven American goose species, the Snow Goose is a noisy migrant that visits the Lower 48 states each winter. These beautiful birds have increased dramatically since the second half of the 20th century.
Despite being only a rare winter visitor to the British Isles, the Smew is one of the countrys most unmistakable and easily identified duck species. Breeding across Central Asia and returning to Western Europe during winter months, smews begin to turn up on inland lakes as well as in coastal regions from November onwards.
One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.
A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
Sightings of wild Mandarin Ducks in the United States cause quite a stir, and it’s easy to see why. These small but eye-catching waterfowl are, in fact, native to the Far East of Asia, although their popularity as an ornamental species has resulted in their introduction to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
Instantly recognizable, the Mallard is a medium-sized dabbling duck that is familiar to people all over the world. These adaptable waterfowl are the ancestor of the modern domestic duck and are found everywhere from remote wilderness lakes to suburban backyards.
One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.
The Greylag goose is the largest grey goose from the Anser genus of the Anatidae family of waterbirds. A stout, robust and heavyweight bird, the Greylag goose is the closest wild relative and ancestor to the domestic goose. Greylag geese are distributed across much of Europe and Asia, extending into eastern Russia and China. Most populations migrate, but some are sedentary, including in much of Northern Europe.
Widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, the common merganser is the largest of the saw billed fish eating ducks. There are three sub-species with the Eurasian variant frequently known as the Goosander.
Goldeneyes are distinctive diving ducks that thrive in cold environments, breeding in boreal forests across Canada, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Only when the lakes and coastal areas on their summer territories begin to freeze over as fall approaches do they begin to head south to milder regions where they spend winter months foraging on inland lakes and around sheltered bays.
The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
Regarded as being sacred by early Egyptians, this native goose of the African continent was introduced into Europe and elsewhere as an ornamental wildfowl species in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
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.
Once decimated through overhunting and habitat destruction, the Canada Goose has rebounded to become one of North America’s most abundant and familiar wildfowl.
A small goose species with a short, stubby bill, the brent goose (or brant, as it is known in North America), breeds in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberian Russia and northern Europe’s Arctic islands. Brant spend winters along North America’s Pacific coast, part of the east coast of the US, and in north-western Europe, from the British Isles to Denmark.
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
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