Norwegian Qarfugl Icelandic Somateria mollissima

Adult drake eiders are unmistakable, since this is the only duck that is essentially white above and black below, with a black crown and tail, pale pink breast, and pale lime green patches on the rear of the head. Immature and eclipse males show a confusing range of parti-colored plumages, but essentially the head is usually dark and the underparts black. The females are like large female mallards, but are easily distinguishable by the much heavier build, dark barred breast, and the distinctive bill shape and "roman nose" head profile.

Six subspecies are recognized as follows (with estimated population sizes): Somateria m. mollissima breeds in northwest Europe and the Baltic east to Novaya Zemlya (1.7-2.4 million birds); Somateria m. faroeensis nests in the Faroe Islands (18,000-26,000); Somateria m. v-nigra inhabits northeastern Siberia

Spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri). Copyright Bates Littlehales/National Geographic Image Collection

to northwestern America (150,000); Somateria m. borealis inhabits the Arctic from Baffin Island eastward through Greenland into the Atlantic, Iceland extending as far as Franz Josef Land (up to 1.2 million birds outside of the Canadian Arctic, from which there is no estimate of numbers); Somateria m. sedentaria breeds in the Hudson Bay region (precise numbers unknown); and Somateria m. dresseri is restricted to northeastern Atlantic America (c.80,000 birds). Most of these populations are migratory, tending to winter along shallow seashores, usually well south of their summer quarters. Eider are rarely found in freshwater habitats (although small numbers regularly winter on lakes in Central Europe), and recently they have become common in winter in the Mediterranean. Generally, the eider is exclusively a marine species, breeding on islands usually along low-lying rocky (i.e., noncliff) or estuarine coasts in dunes and on islands, less frequently on inland tundra pools and along rivers. In winter, common eiders frequent shallow rocky and sandy seashores, most commonly (but not exclusively) in sheltered waters, as in north and northwest Europe, Iceland, off Greenland, around Hudson Bay coasts (often confined to areas of open water maintained by currents or wind), Labrador, northeastern North America, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Kamchatka.

Common eiders start breeding in April or May, but this can be considerably delayed in most northern regions. Nesting generally occurs in loose or dense colonies, the nests shallow lined with abundant down. The clutch is normally 4-6 eggs and incubation can take up to 28 days. The chicks are independent from hatching, dark brown above, whitish below, which may amalgamate into large "nursery" flocks, fledging after 70-75 days. Nesting success varies enormously between years, with some individual cohorts contributing large numbers of breeding females to the nesting population in subsequent years. Birds reach sexual maturity at 3 years, and may breed more or less annually; ringed individuals are known to have reached 23 years of age. Eiders feed mostly on bottom-dwelling molluscs, especially the blue mussel Mytilus edulis, but they also eat crustaceans, echino-derms, and other invertebrates obtained by diving, up ending, and head dipping in shallow waters.

Eiders have been a very important food item to the Inuit peoples, especially because of the colonial nesting nature of the species and the habit of gathering to molt postbreeding. Bones from both this and the following species have been found among remains from human settlements 1900-1600 years BC in Kane Basin, Ellesmere Island. Common eider remained a highly important source of food at Avenersuaq in northwest Greenland in the early 1900s and in northern Alaska. In North America, eiders were hunted with a kind of bolas called a killamittaun, made of feathers bound with sinews and weighed with bone or walrus ivory. This was still used in the early 20th century on the Arctic coast of Alaska and probably throughout much of the North American Arctic. Eiders throughout the Arctic region were also killed with spears during the flightless wing molt period, postbreeding. It is thought that the Inuit did not use eider down before European traders made woven cloth available to them. However, once such a trade in the commodity was firmly established by the 18th century, both Greenland and Canadian maritime people joined in with the supply of this resource. In Iceland, on the very fringe of the Arctic region, such a collection by locals of Viking descent had been established for centuries. Here, protection from predators and regular down collection made wild birds almost semidomesticated. The birds were probably initially farmed for food, but by the end of the Middle Ages eider down was being used for cushions and bedding and became a valuable export. Eider skins feature in clothing and rags, and in West Greenland the traditional inner coat was invariably of 15-20 eider skins, renewed annually. The warm side pieces of the coat worn by the mummified woman found near Uummannaaq, West Greenland, dating from 1475 were made of duck eider (or possibly king eider) (see Qilakitsoq Mummies). In Canada, the East Hudson Bay people sewed eider skins together for blankets and clothing, usually retaining the inner down feather (after softening of the skin). When used for bedding, the edges of blankets were adorned with the heads (especially the attractive nape feathering of the males), and the Royal Greenlandic Trading Company fostered a trade in these rugs (comprising over 100 skins each), which peaked in the 1920s, when up to 1300 per year were exported to Denmark (the practice was stopped in 1939).

King Eider: Sioraki (Adult Male), Qingalik, Aavooq (Greenlandic), Qingalila (Inuktitut), ^Qarkongur (Icelandic), Prakt^rfugl (Norwegian); Somateria spectablis

The adult male king eider appears white in front, dark behind from a distance, with a peaked orange forehead, red bill, pale gray head, and black back. In flight, the species shows a white triangle on the fore and inner wing (contrasting black flight feathers and back). The female is more reddish brown than the common eider, and lacks the sloping forehead that runs into the bill profile on the more common species.

King eiders breed along Arctic coastlines, but most often on tundra lakes and pools far from the sea in freshwater habitats, in contrast to the common eider. However, the rest of the year is spent at sea, often in deeper waters well offshore, sometimes far from land. Like the common eider, this species feeds on molluscs and crustaceans, but the king eider more often takes echinoderms. Breeders in the Russian and Canadian/Alaskan Arctic undertake a molt migration; those from the Canadian population move to West Greenland, where they also winter. Elsewhere, the species winters in northeast North America, Alaska, Aleutian Islands, and Kamchatka, but is very rare inland. Rarely if ever colonial, king eiders breed alone in open tundra areas from June onward. The nest is usually of grass, lined with down, often very open; the 4-5 eggs are incubated for 22-24 days. Downy young are darkish brown above, white below, and are fledged at around 70 days.

There are no good estimates of the population size for this species. However, it is thought that there are some 200,000-250,000 in the western and central North American Arctic and perhaps 300,000 in the western Russian Arctic. There are suggestions of a 50% decline in numbers between 1976 and 1994 of the population that nests in western Arctic Canada and that molts and winters in the Bering Sea. The Inuit heavily hunt this species off West Greenland, where it has also become less numerous in recent years.

Spectacled Eider: Quageq (Yupik), Quvaasuk (Inupiat); Somateria fischeri

The adult male spectacled eider has a black chest and white back, a green head with a long, sloping forehead, and distinctive white eye patches. Young birds and females are brown with pale brown eye patches. Spectacled eiders nest in wet tundra near ponds on the Arctic coasts of Alaska between Pt Barrow and the Lower Kuskokwim River, and in northeastern Siberia. Nesting pairs arrive together each spring, but the males leave after egg incubation begins. In late summer, the females and young join the males at sea. Tagging of birds with satellite telemetry devices has located the wintering grounds in polynya in the Bering Sea, where they appear to be entirely marine in habit.

This species lays 4-5 eggs and incubation lasts for approximately 24 days with a further 53 days taken to fledge the young. Drakes are able to mate when they are two years old. Current world population estimates put this species at between 200,000 and 400,000 individuals. It feeds chiefly on molluscs, but in summer, like all the eiders, consumes insect and insect larvae, arachnids, and even grass seeds. Recent declines of 94-98% in its breeding population in Alaska (mostly likely as a result of exposure to lead shot) led to the species' listing as a Threatened Species in the United States, but the overall global conservation status of the species remains unknown.

Tony Fox

See also King Eider

Further Reading

Bellrose, F.C., Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America,

Harrisburg: Stackpole, 1976 Cramp, S. & K.E.L. Simmons, The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Volume 1, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977 Del Hoyo, J., A. Elliot & J. Sartagal, Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1, Ostrich to Ducks, Madrid: Lynx, 1992 Godfrey, W.E., The Birds of Canada (revised edition), Ottawa:

National Museums of Canada, 1986 Grand, J.B., P.L. Flint, M.R. Petersen & C.L. Moran, "Effect of lead poisoning on spectacled eider survival rates." Journal of Wildlife Management, 62(3) (1998): 1103-1109

Hart Hanse, J.P. & H.C. Gull0v, "The Mummies from Qilakitsoq—Eskimos in the 15th Century." Meddelelser om Gr0nland, Man and Society, 12 (1989): 1—199 Madge, S. & H. Burn, Wildfowl: An Identification Guide to the Ducks, Geese and Swans of the World, London: Helm, 1987 Palmer, R.S., Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 3,

New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1976 Petersen, M.R., W.W. Larned & D.C. Douglas, "At-sea distribution of spectacled eiders: a 120-year-old mystery resolved." Auk, 116 (1999): 1009—1020 Reed, A. (editor), Eider Ducks in Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service Report Series Number 47, Ottawa: Canadian Wildlife Service

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