Somateria mollissimacommon eider

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Geographic Range

Common eider populations nest mainly in the coastal high arctic regions of Canada and Siberia. Along the eastern coast of North America, common eiders breed as far south as Maine, and along the western coast of North America they breed as far south as the Alaskan Peninsula. During the winter, common eiders move south, rarely as far as Florida on the east coast and sometimes as far south as Washington on the west coast. Most common eiders, however, move primarily to Newfoundland and Cape Cod in the east and to the Aleutian Islands in the west. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Nuttal, 1929; Peterson, 1980)

Habitat

Common eiders nest mainly among the rocks surrounding the coastlines and in tundra, particularly on small offshore islands that are free of mammalian predators. Nests are often hidden in tall grasses to avoid predation. (Guillemette, et al., 1992)

Physical Description

Measuring, on average, between 53 to 60 cm (21 to 24 inches) common eiders are the largest ducks in the northern hemisphere. Although the weight of common eiders differs depending upon the individual’s sex and the time of year, they average about 1800 grams, with reported measurements being between 850 and 3025 grams.

Adult male common eiders are recognizable by their dramatic arrangement of black and white plumage. They are black on their underside and white on their back and forewings. The male common eider also has a predominantly white head, but it is crowned with black and they have a touch of light emerald green on the back and sides of their head. The adult female common eider is almost exclusively brownish or reddish-brown and is closely barred. Immature males begin their life grayish-brown in color, then become dusky with a white collar and eventually end up like their mature counterparts. The white plumage in adult males develops in irregular patterns.

Female Common Eiders blend in well with their environment, which is the vegetation on the offshore islands. Adult plumage patterns are not fully complete until they reach about three years of age. In the period of a single year, dramatic differences in the appearance of plumage occur, which is why there is a great diversity in appearance among individuals in any given flock. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Nuttal, 1929; Peterson, 1980)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range mass
    850 to 3025 g
    29.96 to 106.61 oz
  • Average mass
    1800 g
    63.44 oz
  • Range length
    53 to 60 cm
    20.87 to 23.62 in

Reproduction

Common eiders are monogamous. During the spring, courtship becomes very intense and lasts even after two common eiders have paired. This ensures a strong bond between the male and the female. When courting a female in the spring, male common eiders use a series of loud, eerie calls to attract a female. These calls resemble a sort of slurred moaning "ow-ee-urr" sound. Although many common eiders are already paired with a mate by the time they reach the breeding grounds, some do not pair until they get to the islands. Pairs of common eiders do not mate for life. (AKNHP, 1998; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; National Audubon Society, Inc., 2000; Peterson, 1980)

Female common eiders reach sexual maturity earlier than males. A female may be capable of reproduction when she is around two years of age, whereas a male takes three years to sexually mature.

Nesting begins in early summer; common eiders return to breeding islands as soon as the ice begins to melt. It takes a couple of days for a pair to choose a nesting site and prepare it. The female common eider plucks down from her own body to line a nest, in which she lays four to five eggs, on average (range 2 to 8). After the second or third egg is laid, the female begins incubation. Incubation lasts for about 25 days and is only done by the female. About 50 percent of common eider eggs hatch successfully. Young fledge after 30 to 50 days. (AKNHP, 1998; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; National Audubon Society, Inc., 2000; Peterson, 1980)

  • Breeding season
    summer
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
    4
  • Average eggs per season
    4
    AnAge
  • Average time to hatching
    25 days
  • Average time to hatching
    28 days
    AnAge
  • Range fledging age
    30 to 50 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

The female common eider plucks down from her own body to line a nest, in which she lays four to five eggs. After the second or third egg is laid, the female begins incubation. Incubation lasts for about 25 days and is only done by the female. Unlike most other seabirds, male common eiders do very little in raising the young. In fact, male common eiders leave to join male flocks once the female has begun incubation. Young fledge in about 30 to 50 days.

After mating, protecting the young from predators becomes one of the major priorities among most individuals in a flock. One of the most noticeable behaviors to provide protection from predators is creching behavior. Common eiders gather into large groups which distract predators and may help ducklings by reducing the gull’s ability to hunt effectively. By pooling into these large groups, common eiders reduce the area exposed to the predators and thus reduce the risk of a gull picking out a single individual in the group. (AKNHP, 1998; Bedard and Munro, 1977; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; National Audubon Society, Inc., 2000; Nuttal, 1929; Peterson, 1980)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • precocial
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Although common eiders are capable of flight about 60 days after hatching, few young ever survive that long. Young are killed by predators, starvation, or exposure. If one duckling per couple lives long enough to make the migration flight in the fall, it is a good year. Even though this survival rate seems low, adult common eiders living in the wild have long lives, often as long as 20 years. Estimated survival rates among adults per year average from 80-95 percent. (AKNHP, 1998; Nuttal, 1929; Peterson, 1980)

Behavior

Common eiders are migratory, they live and travel in large flocks which often number from tens to thousands of individuals. Common eiders dive to collect various oceanic organisms, often plunging anywhere from 3 to 20 meters into the water. They also follow a leader in the flock while diving in order to expend less energy in the winter. (AKNHP, 1998; Guillemette, 1998; Guillemette, et al., 1992; Nuttal, 1929)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

When courting a female in the spring, male common eiders use a series of loud, eerie calls to attract a female. These calls resemble a sort of slurred moaning "ow-ee-urr" sound.

Food Habits

The diet of common eiders consists almost exclusively of mollusks, echinoderms, crustaceans, and a few fish. Common eiders swallow their prey whole and then crush them with their gizzard. During the winter months, daylight is short-lived and so common eiders spend more than half of the day feeding.

Common eiders feed by diving into the water to collect food. This behavior is done in a systematic fashion, with the leaders diving first and the rest following behind. Feeding usually only lasts 15 to 30 minutes per session and afterwards the common eiders move inland to rest and digest their food. After regaining strength, they repeat the behavior; this occurs throughout the day. When temperatures drop drastically during the winter, common eiders expend less energy and may stop feeding to conserve energy. Also during this time, common eiders improve their energy levels by becoming more effective hunters. It has been shown that during the cold months, common eiders dive and collect larger prey.

Foods eaten include: mussels, clams, scallops, sea urchins, starfish, crabs and fish. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Guillemette, 1998; Guillemette, et al., 1992; Peterson, 1980)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • echinoderms

Predation

The primary predators of common eiders are Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) and various gulls (family Laridae). The gulls are perhaps more of a threat than the foxes. This is because common eiders tend to nest on islands, which don’t have land predators, but gulls can fly out to the islands with no trouble. Gulls prey on the eggs and the young of common eiders, and are a major threat to the survival of the young. The threat posed by the gulls is alleviated somewhat by the creching behavior of common eiders. Gulls do, however, still prey on common eiders even during creching. Gulls will follow the flock in flight and make various swoops into the crowd to try and snag a young duckling. Similarly, while on the ground, gulls will work together. One gull will hover over a common eider who is concealing her young next to her body causing the female to jump up and attack the gull. In doing this, the female exposes her young, allowing a gull on the ground to snatch it away. (AKNHP, 1998; Bedard and Munro, 1977; Guillemette, 1998; Nuttal, 1929)

Ecosystem Roles

Common eiders have an impact on the prey they eat; they are also an important food source for their predators.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Common eiders are widely known for their down feathers. Although they are also valued as a sport duck and for culinary purposes, their feathers have produced a multi-million dollar industry in some parts of the world. Common eider down can be collected from nests without disturbing the eggs or the well-being of the duck. (AKNHP, 1998; National Audubon Society, Inc., 2000)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of common eiders on humans.

Conservation Status

Common eider populations were dramatically reduced prior to hunting regulations in North America. Some places in Canada and the arctic north even saw local extinctions of common eiders. Since the hunting laws were enacted, these areas have been recolonized by common eiders; they have even extended their breeding ranges. Common eiders are protected under the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (AKNHP, 1998)

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Curtis Rogers (author), Western Maryland College, Randall L. Morrison (editor), Western Maryland College.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

holarctic

a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polar

the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tundra

A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.

visual

uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

AKNHP, 1998. "AKNHP" (On-line). Accessed 03/02/04 at http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/enri/aknhp_web/biodiversity/zoological/spp_of_concern/spp_status_reports/ceider/ceider.html.

Bedard, J., J. Munro. 1977. Gull predation and creching behavior in the Common Eider. Journal of Animal Ecology, 46: 799-810.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.

Guillemette, M. 1998. The effect of time and digestion constraints in Common Eiders while feeding and diving over Blue Mussel beds. Functional Ecology, 12: 123-131.

Guillemette, M., J. Himmelman, R. Ydenberg. 1992. The role of energy intake in prey and habitat selection of Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) in winter: A risk-sensitive interpretation. Journal of Animal Ecology, 61: 599-610.

National Audubon Society, Inc., 2000. "Project Puffin, Virtual Puffin: An Interactive Tour of Eastern Egg Rock" (On-line). Accessed 02/03/04 at http://www.audubon.org/bird/puffin/virtual/eider.html.

Nuttal, T. 1929. Birds of the United States and Canada. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Peterson, R. 1980. A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies. United Sates of America: Roger Tory Peterson.