Once a major species hunted for markets, the large Common Eider inhabits arctic and near-arctic coastal marine habitats. Common Eiders nest colonially in large groups. In Iceland, they have become almost tame. Farmers protect them from predators, and harvest the eider down from nests in a sustainable way.
Common Eiders dive to depths of around 10 meters. Most dives are less than a minute in duration, but can last up to two minutes as they gather their preferred food consisting of marine invertebrates.
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Description of the Common Eider
The Common Eider is a large, stocky sea duck with an elongated head shape and large bill. Males and females differ greatly in plumage.
– White back and black sides.
– Black cap.
Pale to rich brownish with darker barring.
Seasonal change in appearance
Non-breeding season males become mostly dark brownish.
Rocky coastlines, islands, and tundra.
Forages by diving underwater or by submerging head.
Breeds along high latitude marine coasts as far south as the northeastern most U.S. Winters as far south as the southern Atlantic coast.
The Common Eider is the largest duck in North America.
Female Common Eiders frequently return to the area where they hatched to nest as an adult.
Hoarse grunts can be produced.
- King Eider females are smaller and have more rounded heads.
The nest is a down-lined depression on the ground.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 24-25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) soon after hatching but remain with the female for some time.
Bent Life History of the Common Eider
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Common Eider – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
SOMATERIA MOLLISSIMA BOREALIS (Brehm)
Spring: Winter lingers on the outer coast of Labrador well into the summer months; all through the month of June and part of July the northeast winds and the Arctic current drive the drifting pack ice onto these exposed and barren rocky coasts. Long before the icy barriers yield to the soft west winds and as soon as the lanes of open water begin to break up the fields of ice, flocks of these heavy-bodied sea ducks may be seen wending their way northward in the opening leads, flying with slow and labored wings beats close to the cold, dark waves or resting in flocks on the larger pans of ice until the way opens for further progress. Many of them have been wintering just beyond the ice floes and are seeking the first opportunity to find open water near their northern breeding grounds.
Regarding their arrival in Cumberland Sound, Kumlien (1879) says:
As soon as there Is any open water they are found in spring; still they are not common at Annanactook till the latter days of May. Eskimos from the south reported them on the floe edge near Niantilic early in May, and I saw a few on an iceberg near the Middliejuacktwack Island on the 30th of April. They can stand almost any temperature if they can find open water.
W Elmer Ekblaw writes to me of their arrival in northern Greenland, as follows:
The all-winter residents are probably the first elders to appear along the mainland shore in early spring, wherever open water may be found off the outermost capes and islands, usually about April 20. The number of eiders frequenting these open places gradually increases, but slowly, until the last week in May, when the immigration begins in earnest and continues until mid-June, when apparently the last comers have arrived. The females come later than the males, but the last females come with the last males. They are usually rather shy and wary and will not permit near approach.
By mid-June the mating season is usually at its height, but in years of heavy snow when the islets are covered until late, the season is retarded. The summer of 1914 was a summer of late melting of snow and the nesting season of the elders had hardly begun by the 20th of June.
Courtship: Jo]m G. Millais (1913) describes the courtship of the European subspecies, as follows:
The courtship of the eider is a very simple one, and somewhat undemonstrative. It is essentially in accordance with the gentle disposition of the bird. The female seems to be at least as amorous as the male, and pays considerable court to the object of her affections. Having selected a mate, she follows him round and round in all his movements, stretching her neck out and sinking low in the water, calling and pushing herself against his side until he responds. The male, on his part, makes a very slight ” lIft” In front, the bill being lowered and the neck drawn up. At the same time he inhales, and on releasing the air as he slightly sinks forward, he utters a gentle “Pu-whoa” or Au-u.” almost a dove-like cry. At the moment the call is emitted, the mouth is slightly opened. The call of the male is repeatedly uttered and is often made without “lifting” in front. At such times the head is held forward, then erected to the normal position as the cry is given. At the moment of calling, the whole throat is somewhat distended. When a general display is in progress amongst a dock of ciders the males and females are In a constant state of movement and activity. The males often make half turns and bows toward their inamorata, and utter a high soft note like the syllable “whoop.”
Lucien M. Turner found northern eiders very abundant in Hudson Straits; his notes say:
They were by far the most abundant duck, probably exceeding all others together. The islands of Ungava Bay are crowded with them. During the mating season the males are Irascible and when the mate is chosen he carefully resents an intrusion from another male. Severe and, often fatal, encounters take place between rival males, resulting in complete defeat to the one or the other. They fight by seizing with the beak and slapping with the wings Inure of a kind of wrestle in which they endeavor to get the head of the adversary under the water. When enjoying quiet the male is fond of uttering a cooing sound 00 oo, spreading one wing out while he rolls on his side, then recovering and kicking rapidly through the water that makes it fly on both sides. This note with a earring sound made in their contests are the only ones I have heard the males produce.
The immature males, during the breeding season, do not associate with the adults. They keep aloof and are usually solitary. Not until the fully adult plumage of the male is assumed does he enter into contest for the female.
Nesting: The same observer describes two interesting nesting localities as follows:
A few miles heloxv Mackay’s Island, about 18 miles up the Koksoak River. is a deep cove on the left bank and nearly opposite “Pancake” point. I gave the name of Eider Cove to that locality from the number of eider’s nests I discovered in it during my first visit there: June 17, 1883. The cove is about 400 yards deep and 75 yards wide, preserving a nearly uniform width to the head, where a lively stream dashes down over the jagged rocks. The south side is inaccessible, formed by a steep wall of granite sloping very slightly to the summit, which is about 400 feet high. The northern side or ~vaIl is composed of ledges and projections covered with rank grasses, weeds, and ferns. On these ledges sad rocks 14 nests of the common eider were found. The first nest was at the base of the rock on a flat scarcely above high-tide mark. This nest contained 5 eggs. Near by were 2 other nests, one of 3, and the other of 1 egg. Farther xvithln were 11 nests each containing from S to 11 eggs. Only in the nests containing the greater number of eggs were they unfitted for food. I secured 49 eggs perfectly fresh and about a dozen that were too far advanced to be eaten.
On that same trip I visited the Islands off time mouth of Whale River. Here James Irvine and myself collected, in less than an hour and a half, over 500 eggs from a single Island and could, doubtless, have obtained many more, but a storm was near by and and we had to make for a larger island where we could secure the heavy whaleboat we had with us. As we approached that Island the number of male elders in the surrounding water and occasional females flying from the water and settling on the land gave promise of a great nesting place. We hauled the boat on a shelving ledge and quickly scrambled to the top of the bank. Here an immense ice cake and drifted snow bad collected on the edge of the bank and extended for several hundred feet in length and over 30 yards wide. The height of the seaward edge was then, June 29, over 4 feet. The dripping water and slippery rock made it difficult to surmount in our anxiety to get at the elders, which had taken alarm and were scurring in hundreds by wing and walk from the land to the sea. In a moment a nest was found and then another and so on until hundreds were discovered. Some with 1 or 2 eggs, others with 6 or 7, these being the more numerous; others with as many as 12. Every grass patch in the depressions of the rocks was examined and the eggs put into piles to be taken to the boat. Several small ponds surrounded by high grasses which were given a luxuriant growth by the droppings of these birds where they had come to bathe or drink for many successive seasons. Among these patches were also the nests of a few Phalaropes, Phalaropus lobatus, which twittered and flitted before us. A single nest of a gull was also found. The nests of the eiders were so differently constructed even on this one island that it would be impossible to describe them all. The materials of which they were composed were grasses, weeds, stalks, and down. The amount of the vegetable matter depended on the particular situation of the nest, for if in the midst of plenty of such material, the nest was often several inches high, resting on a mound formed from the decayed mass of material used as a nest many years ago. At times merely a~ slight depression was cleared of vegetation and on the bare earth the egg was deposited and covered with down.
On my trip down the coast of Labrador in 1912 I found eiders common all along the coast from the Straits of Belle Isle floFthward, but generally they were so shy that it was impossible to shoot any. The largest breeding colony I saw was on one of the outer islands off the coast near Hopedale, which we visited on July 22. It was a small, low, rocky island with a very little glass and a few mosses growing in the hollows and crevices between the rocks. No male eiders were seen on or about the island, but the females began flying off as we landed and we flushed many from their nests as we walked over the flat rocks. We found between 20 and 30 nests with eggs, varying in ntimber from 1 to 5. Some natives had visited the island a. fortnight or more previously and had collected about. 150 eggs; there must have been between 30 and 40 nests on the island at that time. The nests were on the ground, in the grass or moss, or in hollows between the rocks; some of them were well made, with a generous supply of pure down, but in most of them the down was mixed with grass and rubbish, and in some of the nests the supply of down was very scanty. Apparently these nests were second or third attempts at raising broods, and evidently the supply of down was becoming exhausted. A drizzling rain was falling all the time that we were on the island, so my attempts at photographing the nests were not as successful as they might have been. We shot five of the ducks as they flew from the nests, all of which proved to be the northern aider. A pair of great black-backed gulls were breeding on the island; we saw the old nest and a young gull running about, as well as the old birds flying overhead. There is generally a pair of these gulls on every island where the eiders are breeding. The natives, who rob the duck’s nests regularly, never disturb the gull’s nest, for they believe that if the gulls are driven off the ducks will not return to the island to lay again. They say that the black-backed gulls are good watch dogs, to warn the eiders of approaching danger and to keep away the ravens and other gulls which might rob the nests. The great black-backed gulls are notorious nest robbers and destroyers of young eiders elsewhere, but perhaps they do not indulgc in highway robbery and murder so near home. Perhaps, however, the gulls do levy their toll in eggs and young eiders, which the latter are too stupid to avoid.
On the coast of Greenland the northern eider frequently nests on cliffs, according to J. D. Figgins, as the following quotation from his notes, published by Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1899) will illustrate:
It prefers the small islands lying some distance offshore, but also breeds on the mainland. Its nest is usually well up the cliffs, and in some cases quite a distance from shore. One nest containing 4 eggs was at an altitude of about 450 feet. and more than three-quarter of a mile from shore.
Dairymple Rock is the favorite breeding place of this species, it Is much broken, and the many ledges offer fine nesting sites. There is a heavy growth of grass on these ledges, and the nest, when it has been used for many years, is a depression in the sod, lined with the down from the breast of the female. As soon as incubation begins the male birds form into flocks of from 4 or 5 to 20, and seem to be always on the wing. There is a constant line of the male birds flying around Dairymple Rock, all going In the same direction. As soon as incubation is completed, the young are transferred to the water, where they seem perfectly at ease, even when there is a heavy sea running.
Mr. Ekhlaw thus describes, in his notes, a visit to one of the great breeding resorts of these birds in northern Greenland:
On June 23 and 25, 1914, we ~vent in a whaleboat to the Eider Islands, between Woistenliolme Island and Saunders Island. These are favorite nesting places of the eiders. In normal years the islands are covered with thousands of nests, but we found a relatively small number of the birds at this time.
As we approached the largest islet of the group flock after flock of elders flew about us, skimming fast and low over the ~vater. The males and females seemed about equal in number. The bright-colored plumage of the male contrasts vividly in the sunlight with the dark, uniformly barred coat of the female, both awing and alight.
Numerous pairs of the elders were swimming about In the sea or idly preening their feathers or wooing on the ice pans. Their wooing “song” very closely resembles the cooing of our domestic pigeons. The noise from a flock together in the mating season might readily be mistaken for the “music” from a dovecot. The sound Is audible for a long distance; from the time we left Saunders Island until we returned we were not beyond reach of these “love songs.”
As we set foot upon the islet hundreds of elders flew about us. The snow still left on the ice foot and on the slopes of the low, rocky hills was beaten down by their footprints. We scrambled hastily over the islet in search of eggs, but found only a dozen all told, where last year on June 15 several thousand were collected. The fact that no nest held more than one egg indicated that the lateness of the season and the heavy snow on the islet had retarded the nesting season. On the other hand, it may have been that the heavy Inroad upon the nests last year discouraged the return of the birds to the islet this year. They may have gone to some other, more remote islet to nest.
The elders nest on all the small skerries and islets and many favorable places along the mainland. The Eider Islands, Dalrymple Rock, Lyttleton Island, McGarys Rock, the small islets In the bay south of Cape Hatherton, Sutherland Island, Hakinyt, and the Cnry Islands are all frequented by large numbers of nesting elders. They may nest In large numbers close together where conditions are favorable, but many nest alone far from any other companions, either on the mainland, sometimes far inland, though more frequently near the shore, or on the larger islands. Safety from depredations by foxes, jaegers, and ravens is a factor in the choice of nesting sites.
The nest of the eider is profusely lined, around, under, and sometimes over the eggs with a thick bed of soft, fluffy down, densely matted, a famous product of considerable commercial value; in color it is “drab,” “light drab,” or “drab gray,” with poorly defined lighter centers and light tips; mixed with it are occasional bits of pure white down, dusky belly feathers, and barred breast feathers.
Eggs: The ncethern eider raises but one brood in a season and lays ordinarily from 4 to 6 eggs; larger numbers have been found, even as many as 19, in one nest, but probably the larger numbers are the product of more than one female. In this connection the following notes from Mr. Turner are of interest:
The number of eggs In a nest is not always a safe index to the number of birds having made the deposit. It frequently happens that a single female will be attended by as many as five males; although it is scarcely probable that they all enjoy equal rights. One of the males is always the leader and the others appear to be entirely under his guidance. I have agaIn, and on repeated occasions, known a single male to have as many as three females under his charge. It is, of course, difficult with these wild birds to determine whether under such circumstances two or more of these ducks have a nest in common or whether they make separate nests.
The eggs of all three of the large eiders, molli,ss-im.a, dre8seri, and T~-nigra, are indistinguishable in size, shape, or color, so one description will serve for all three. In shape they vary from ovate to elliptical ovate. The shell is smooth, with only a slight gloss, which increases with incubation. The color varies from “olive” to “deep olive buff,” or from “yellowish glaucous” to ” vetiver green.” The eggs are often mottled or clouded with darker shades of green. olive or buffy olive, through which the ground color sometimes shows in washed-out spots. The measurements of 70 eggs, in various collections, average 75.4 by 50.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 83 by 53, 67.8 by 47. and 73.2 by 46 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation of the European eider has been ascertained by several observers to be about 28 days. It is performed wholly by the female. The males are said to desert the females at this time and form small flocks by themselves; but the follow.ng observation 1w Kumlien (1879) is interesting:
I have often lain behind a rock on their breeding islands and watched them for a long time. On one occasion we disturbed a lflrge colony, and the ducks all left the nests. I sent my Eskimos away to another island, while I remained behind to see how the ducks would act when they returned. As soon as the boat was gone they began to return to their nests, both males and females. It was very amusing to see a male alight beside a nest, and with a satisfied air settle himself down on the eggs, when suddenly a female would come to the same nest and inform hiar that he had made a mistake: it was not his nest. He started up, looked blankly around, discovered his mistake, and with an awkward and very ludicrous bow, accompanied with some suitable explanation, I suppose, he waddled ((if in search of his own home, where he found iris faithful mate installed.
Mr. Turner’s notes state that:
The young leave the nest xvl)en about 36 hours old and immediately accompany the parent to the edge of the water. The distance to be traveled varies from a few feet to half a ulile. I have riot on the Atlantic coast found the nests so far from the water as were found at St. Michael, Alaska. In some instances the nest is placed on ledges that lillve tin Path by which the delicate young can reach the water excepting by plunging several feet to the next ledge or else be assisted by the parent. The latter I have rIot seen tire inn ones do or have I seen it so recorded. The young renlain with the mother (luring the summer and probably do not leave Irer at all, but join with other broods to compose tire flocks seen in lire fall of tIre year. As soon uS the young are hatched the males separate from tire females and do riot join tiarir again until fall.
Mr. Ekblaxv says in his notes:
The first nesting birds iratcir their eggs soon after July 1. The most are hatched about July 15 to 20. On Sutherland Island as late as August 10, 1912, I found a nest of four eggs still hatching in a single isolated nest. In this nest onre little fellow han iratchieui anti nlrie(l. and when I flushed the mother ire followed her to the water. Another little fellow just hatched was not yet dry, but even so, he sensed the alarm and tried to iride in the down with whicir tIre nest was lined. A third duckling was just cutting the shell later in the evening wheir I came back to the nest he hind come safely into the worini. The fourth egg was irot eveir cracked, but a vigorous peej)ing witlrin the shell indicated that on the morrow the last of the brood would follow the mother into the ~vater.
The downy little duckhiags get into tire water just as soon as they can. They paddle after their mothers like rmnimated little black halls of fur, keeping always close to her. Even when tiny. they dive like a thasir. rind come up like a bubble. Like the oldsquaws, the eider mothers join their little flocks, and one mother leads the file while the other brings up the rear. From the time they are hatched until they leave for the South, they keep to the open sea, coming in to the shore sometimes to rest, but more frequently resting on ice floes.
While the young birds are developing In strength and ability to swim, the mothers constantly lead them southward. From mid-August to mid-September a constant procession of elders swims outward from the bays and fjords and goes on southward. The southward flight migration. is late, beginning about the 1st of September and continuing until the Ice freezes, often in October. Even so, many of the young birds are still unable to fly when the fjords freeze over, and frequently flocks of them are caught by sudden freezes and Imprisoned in little pools where they finally freeze t6 death or fail prey to the foxes, bears, or Eskimo.
Plumages: The downy young of the three eiders, ?nolli8sima,, dresseri, and V-nigra, ‘are all practically indistinguishable. The upper parts are “olive brown,” deepening to “clove brown” on t.he crown and rump, and paling to “light drab” on the sides and to “pale drab-gray” on the throat and belly; there is a broad superciliary stripe of “light drab” or dull “wood brown” above the eyes and the cheeks, and lores are abruptly darker than their surroundings. Before the young bird is half grown the first dusky, browntipped feathers of the juvenal plumage appear on the flanks and scapulars; the tail feathers start next, then the breast plumage and the head; the young bird is nearly fully grown before the last of the down disappears from the upper back and rump; the wings appear last of all, so that both old and young birds are flightless to~ether in August.
In the juvenal plumage the sexes are much alike; this plumage is worn by the young male through the fall and resembles that. of the young female, but not that of the adult female. Sometimes as early as October, but more often not until December, the young male begins to differentiate by acquiring a few black feathers in the flanks and scapulars and a few white feathers on the lower neck or chest. These two colors increase in purity and extent by a practically continuous molt throughout the winter and spring, with considerable individual variation. The tail is molted during the winter, the time varying with different birds, and some white feathers appear in the scapulars and rump. in early spring or before that. By April many young males have the throat, neck, and chest almost wholly white, the back almost wholly black and white, and the head nearly all black above, but the wings and the under parts are still wholly immature; at this stage, the sea-green patch over and behind the ear coverts is often completely developed or intermixed with black and brown feathers of the first stage.
The next change takes place at the summer molt, in .July and August. This is a complete molt involving a double molt of much of the contour plumage and producing a first-eclipse plumage, which Mr. Millais (1913) describes as follows:
The feathers of the whole head and neck are shed and replaced in a few days by a plumage resembling, but somewhat darker than, that of the juve nile; eye-stripe dull white with blackish markings; crown, upper parts of cheeks, and back of bead and neck black; rest of cheeks and throat grey-brown; mantle and scapulars * blackish-brown. In a bird killed on July 6 at Fitfuihead, Shetland, which has effected the above change, the wings, tail, and nearly all the lower parts are still In juvenile plumage, much worn and faded; the white-and-buff shield on the upper chest and its sides is re placed by a new set of feathers: whIte with brown-black bars, and edged with reddish-brown; the long faded scapulars are still unshed and sandy-yellow as well as the primaries.
During the fall this first eclipse plumage is replaced by the second winter plumage, which is not completed until November. This resembles the adult plumage in a general way, but it can be easily recognized by its imperfections. The center of the crown is mottled with grayish brown; the green areas on the head are paler and more restricted; the white of the back is broken by scattering dusky feathers; the lesser wing coverts are brownish and the greater wing coverts are edged with dusky, both of which are pure xvhite in adults; the curving tertials are less developed and edged with dusky, instead of being pure white; and the under parts, which are clear, deep black in adults, are now dull, brownish black, with the anterior border broken and mottled. This plumage is worn without much change until the second eclipse plumage appears the next summer. This is less complete than the adult eclipse plumage and can be distinguished from the first eclipse by the wings. The fall molt out of this plumage produces the adult winter plumage, characterized by the pure white back, wing coverts, and curved tertials. The young bird thus becomes adult at an age of 28 or 30 months. A few birds, otherwise adult, retain signs of immaturity during their third winter, chiefly in the form of dusky-edged feathers in the creamcolored breast.
The adult male has one complete molt each year, reaching its climax in August; the plumage of the head and neck -is all molted twice to produce and to replace the eclipsc plumage, that of the breast and back partially twice and the rest of the plumage only once. The eclipse plumage is very striking and very interesting, as it is beautifully adapted to conceal the brilliant colors of the male during the time when he is quite incapable of flight and obliged to seek refuge by swimming and diving on the open sea. The bright colors of the head and neck are completely replaced by blacks and browns in mottled effect, a complete molt of these parts beginning in July; the white back is screened by a new growth of grayish white feathers, broadly tipped with dusky; and the breast is completely concealed by new feathers, subterminally barred wit.h the black and tipped with brown. In the fall the winter plumage is reproduced by a complete new growth of feathers on the head and neck; the plumage of the back and the breast is restored partly by molt and partly by wearing away of the dark tips; the whole process is a beautiful illustration of the maximum of concealment with the minimum of molt.
Mr. Millais (1913) says the young female can be distinguished from the male, even in the downy stage, being “generally darker on the under parts and the eye stripe narrower and shorter.” In the juvenal plumage she has a “smaller eye stripe, paler upper parts and darker upper breast.” The young female remains largely in the juvenal plumage through much or all of the first winter; specimens collected in February show the molt into the first spring plumage in various stages; but by March most of the birds have acquired a semiadult plumage. In this the dull-brown feathers, with narrow sandy-brown edges, of the juvenal plumage have been replaced by the dusky or dusky-barred feathers, with broad edges of deeper and richer browns, of the adult plumage. But birds in this plumage can always be distinguished from adults by their juvenal wings, which still retain the old, worn, dusky secondaries, tertials, and long scapulars; the long, curved, brown-edged tertials and the white-tipped secondaries and secondary coverts of adults are lackin g; the belly plumage also remains largely immature. At the next summer molt, which is complete, a second winter plumage is assumed, which is nearly adult; but the white tips of the secondaries and secondary coverts are smaller and narrower; and the birds are usually more heavily barred above and more uniformly dark brown below. At the next molt, when a little over 2 years old, the fully adult plumage is acquired. Some females probably breed during their second spring, but probably most of them do not do so until they are nearly 3 years old.
The foregoing account of the molts and plumages of this species will suffice equally well for the American eider and the Pacific cider, as the sequence is the same in all three species, or subspecies, and the immature plumages of all three are practically indistinguishable.
Food: Eiders obtain their food almost wholly by diving to moderate depths; almost any kind of marine animal life is acceptable and easily digested in their powerful gizzards; most of it is found on or about the sun ken ledges or submerged reefs off rocky shores, which support a rank growth of various seaweeds and a profusion of marine invertebrates. They prefer to feed at low tide when the food supply is only a few fathoms below the surface; they often dive to depths of 6 or 8 fathoms and sometimes 10 fathoms, but when forced by the rising tide to too great exertion in diving, they move off to some other feeding ground or rest and play until the tide favors them again. They are usually very regular in their feeding habits, resorting to certain ledges every day at certain stages of the tides, as long as the food supply lasts. They seem to prefer to feed by daylight and to roost on some inaccessible rock to sleep at night. Many other ducks are forced to feed at night, as they are constantly disturbed on their feeding grounds during the day; but the eider’s feeding grounds are so rough and inaccessible that they are seldom disturbed. Even in rough weather these tough and hardy birds may be seen feeding about the ledges white with breakers; they are so strong and so expert in riding the waves and in dodging the breakers that they do not seem to care how rough it is. I have seen them feeding, off our eastern coasts in winter, in water so rough that no boat could approach them.
Their favorite food seems to be the common black mussel (Myteli~ edulis), which grows in such extensive beds as to furnish abundant food for myriads of sea fowl; the eiders devour these in such large quantities that their crops are most uncomfortably distended. Periwinkles, limpets, and a great variety of other univalve and bivalve mollusks are eaten; their stomachs are crammed full of such hardshelled food, mixed with pebbles, all of which is ground up by the strong muscular action of the stomach, assisted by the chemical action of the gastric juices; the soft parts are digested and the pulverized shells pass out through the intestines. They are said to eat small fish occasionally, as well as fish roe and that of crustaceans. Starfish, sea urchins, and crabs are eaten, even the great spider crab and other large crabs measuring 2 inches across the carapace. Mr. Millais (1913) says:
I remember once, in Orkney, running down to a flock of feeding elders that for the moment had vanished beneath the waves. One rose near the boat with something like a thick stick projecting 5 or 0 inches from its mouth, which it was unable to close. I shot the bird, an old female, and found that the obstruction, when drawn out, was a razor shell (Basis siliqua), 10 inches long and 3 inches In circumference. Bow any bird, even with the digestion of a sea duck, could assimilate so tough a morsel with a hard and thick shell seemed a marvel, but it is doubtless the case that they are able to break them up and eject the shells as pellets.
Kumlien (1879) writes:
Their food in autumn consists almost entirely of mollusks. I have taken shells from the oesophagus more than 2 inches in length; from a single bird I have taken out 43 shells, varying from one-sixteenth to 2 inches in length.
The adult birds in spring did not seem to be quite so particular; in them I found almost all the common forms of marine invertebrates, and sometimes even a few fish (Liparis, and the young of Coitus scorpius).
Mr. Andrew Halkett (1905) found the following material in th~ gizzards of some 20 eiders:
Numerous shells of Acrnace tcstadiaelis, numerous fragments of valves of Toaicella inarmorata, a few shells of Margarita. ciflcrca, a number of shells of other small gastropods, a few opercula of a gastropod, egg capsules of a gastropod, numerous valves of Creneila, fragments of valves of various small and medium sized lamellibranchs, various parts of the shells of Hyas and other crustaceans, a few pieces of the arms of an ophiurian, a few bones of a very small teleost, fragments of alga, numerous small stones.
Behavior: The flight of the northern eider is apparently slow, heavy, and labored, hilt in reality it is much stronger and swifter than it appears andexceedinglv straight and direct. Its heavy head is held low, with the bill pointing slightly downward, a characteristic and diagnostic attitude. Eiders usually fly in small flocks, in Indian file, close to the water, often following the indentations of the shore line, but. very seldom flying over the land. In rough weather a flock of eiders is apt to follow the trough of the sea and is often lost to sight between the waves. I have seen one, when shot at and perhaps wounded, dive ollt of the air into the water and not show itself again. It is an expert at diving and hiding below the surface; if there is only the slightest ripple on the water it can conceal itself and swim a~vay with only a portion of its bill protruding and almost invisible.
As stated above, eidcrs are capable of diving to depths of 8 or 10 fathoms if necessary. In diving the wings are partially opened and used to a limited extent in swimming under water, but the wings are not wholly spread; progress seems to be made mainly by the use of the feet, and there is nothing like the full subaqueous flight practiced by some of the Alcidae. Mr. Millais (1913) relates the following interesting incident:
Personally I have the gravest doubts of’ the truth ci the statement made by many writers tbat the eider and other sea (lucks hold en ” to the seaweed at the bottom of the ocean rather than allow themselves to come to the surface and be shot. One morning in February, 1866, I pursued an old male ei(ler, which I had winged from a flock, into some shallows off the island of Reisa Little, in the Orkneys. The white back of the bird could be plainly seen under water entering some dark weeds amongst small rocks near the shore. Presently it disappeared in the tangle, and as the bird did not again coma to the surface I leaned over the side of the boat and made search for it. I had seen it enter a comparatively small area of (lark ground round which there were sand spaces, so I concluded it must be hidden amongst the fronds, and aiter a short search I saw the white back gle~inin’~ beside a small rock, the head and neck being concealed under the seaweed. It occurred to me that it would ho interesting to see whether the bird would voluntarily leave this position or not; so after waiting for a quarter of an hour, during which It did not move, I gave it a lift with my long seal gaff, when it at once floated to the surface quite dead. The mouth was half open: some thin weeds encircled the neck. Doubtless this bird allowed Itself to be drowned, as its half-open bill showed; but that it was actually holding on to the weeds I could see no sign. I could narrate several instances of a similar character which would only tend to show that whilst the birds both voluntarily get into positions under water from which they will not move until death overtakes them and also into crannies and encircling weeds from which they can not escape owing to lack of strength, yet there is not actual proof that they hold on to the weeds at the bottom of the sea, as Naumann suggests.
Outside of the vocal performances indulged in during the mating season, elders, particularly males, are decidedly silent birds. Mr. Turner says:
The females utter a grating croak while flying to or from their nests and a hiss while on the nest. This hissiag sound gives rise to the Eskimo name of this species, Mitik.
Mr. Millais (1913) says:
In winter eiders are very silent birds, like all the sea ducks except the longtail, and their voice is not often heard except when single individuals are searching for their friends. The male whea swimming occasionally utters a hoarse, grating call like the words “Kor-er-korkorr-kor,” and the female a slightly higher note, “Kar-er-Icarkar-ka a.” The female ‘also utters this call when she is flying.
Referring to the enemies of eiders, Mr. Millais (1913) writes:
In the winter elders have few enemies except man, though sea eagles often attack them along the coast line in Norway, whilst the great black-backed gull has a wonderful eye for a “picked” bird and will hunt it until it falls a prey owing to exhaustion. In the summer elders have many enemies In their Arctic home, and a few In our islands. Even in the Orkneys and Shetlands a few of the young fall a prey to both lesser and greater black-backed gulls; whilst Richardson’s skua is not wholly above suspicion. In Unst the great skua has been seen to attack and swallow young elders. In Iceland numbers of young elders are killed by Richardson’s skua, sea eagles, and a few by the Iceland falcons. Arctic foxes are not numerous here, as they are in the Russian islands, Greenland, and Labrador, where these animals levy heavy toll on the old birds on the nests as well as the young. Polar bears also kill quantities of young elders, and xviii break and eat their eggs. In West Greenland the harp seal is said to catch elders on the water, coming up and seizing them from below, and it Is possible that the small whale, Orca gladiator, kills a few. In northeast Greenland the chief marauder of all sea birds Is the glaucous gull, which creates much havoc amongst young ducks.
Dr. I. I. Hayes (1867) gives the following graphic account of the predatory habits of the glaucous gulls: A rugged little ledge, which I named Eider Island, was so thickly colonized that we could hardly walk without treading on a nest. We killed with guns and stones over 200 birds in a few hours; it was near the close of the breeding season. The nests were still occupied by the mother birds; but many of the young ha(l burst the shell, and were nestling under the wing, or taking their first lessons in the xvater pools. Some, more advanced, were already in the ice-sheltered channels, greedily waiting for the shellfish and sea urchirfs which the old bird busied herself in procuring for them. Near by was a low isolated rock ledge, which we called Hans Island. The glaucous mills, those cormorants of the Arctic seas, had made it their peculiar homestead ; their progeny, nlready fully fledged and voracious, croxvded the guano-xvhitened rocks; and the mothers, with long necks and gaping yellow bills, swooped above the peaceful shallows of the elders, carrying off the young birds, seemingly just as their wants required. The gull would gobble up and swallow a young eider in less time than it takes me to describe the act. For a moment you would see the paddling feet of the poor little wretch protruding from the mouth ; then came a distension of the neck as it descended into the stomach; a few moments more and the young gulls were feeding on the ejected morsel.
J. I). Figgi ns (1902) says that, in northwest Greenland, ” eider ducks are much prized by the natives and are killed by spearing from the kayak. The spear is simply a sharpened rod of iron set into the end of a light shaft. At 15 or 20 yards the hunter seldom misses his mark.”
Referring to the food value of eider’s eggs to the Eskimos. Dr. Donald B. MacMillan (1918) writes:
How impatiently we awaited the discovery of those first golden nuggets in the nests. Can we ever forget those annual pilgrimages to the shrine at historic Littleton and Eider Duck Islands and McCarys Rock. Here, among a laughing, jolly company of men, women, and children, we pitched our tents among the nests; we boiled eggs, and we fried eggs, and we scrambled eggs, and \ve shirred eggs, and we did everything to eggs. In a few hours 4,000 delicious fresh eggs were gathered from one small island alone. Cached beneath the rocks, away from the direct rays of the sun, they remain perfectly fresh ; they become chilled iii August; and freeze hard as so many rocks in September: a lunch-appreciated delicacy during the long winter months. The shells are often broken and the contents poured or squirted from the mouth of tire Eskimo into the intestinal sheath of the bearded seal or the walrus, a n)ost nutritious sausage to be eaten on the long sledge trips.
The Moravian missionaries of northern Laborador showed me some beautiful eider-down blankets which were made by the Eskimos of Greenland for sale in the Danish markets; they were made of the breasts of eiders from which the feathers had all been plucked, leaving the down on the skins, which had been cured so that they were very soft and pliable; the edges of the blankets were trimmed with the cured skins of the heads of many northern and king eiders. making very attractive borders. They were the softest, lightest, warmest, and most beautiful blankets I bad ever seen, and I was told that they brought such fancy prices that they were be3’O11(I the reach of ordinary mortals. I believe the natives also use these plucked skins for winter underwear, wearing them with the down side next to the skin; eider-down underwear and Arctic-hare stockings must be very soft and warm.
The eider-down industry has never been so highly developed on the American side of the Atlantic as it has on the other side. It would undoubtedly prove a profitable industry and would also serve to protect the birds if properly conducted. The following account of how it is done in Iceland, written by C. W. Shepard, is published by Baird, Brewer, and IRidgway (1884)
The islands of Vigr and Oedey are their headquarters in the northwest of Iceland. In these they live in undisturbed tranquility. They have become t,lmost domesticated, and are found in vast multitudes, as the young remain and breed in the place of their birth. As the island (Vigr) was approached we could see flecks upon flocks of the sacred birds, and could hear their cooing at a great distance. We landed on a rocky, wave-worn shore. It was the most ~vonderful ornithological sight conceivable. The ducks nnd their nests were everywhere. Great broxvn ducks sat upon their nests in masses, and at every step started from under our feet. It was with difficulty that we avoided trending on some of the nests. On the coast of the opposite shore was a wall built of large stones, just above the high-water level, about 3 feet in height, and of considerable thickness. At the bottom, on both sides of it, alternate stones had been left out so as to form a series of square compartments for ihe ducks to nest in. Almost every compartment was occupied, and as we walked along the shore a long line of docks flew out, one after the other. The surface of the water also was perfectly white with drakes, who xvelcomed their brown wives with loud and clamorous cooing. The house itself was a marvel. The earthen walls that surrounded it and the window embrasures were occupied by ducks. On the ground the house was fringed with ducks. On the turf slopes of its roof we could see ducks, and a duck sat on the door scraper. The grassy banks had been cut Into square patches, about 13 inches having been removed, and each hollow had been filled with ducks. A windmill was infested, and so were all the outhouses, mounds, rocks, and crevices. The ducks were everywhere. Many were so tame that we could stroke them on their nests; and the good lady told us that there was scarcely a duck on the island that would not allow her to take its eggs without flight or fear. Our hostess told us that when she first became possessor of the island the produce of down from the ducks was not more than 15 pounds in a year; but that under her careful nurture of 20 years it has risen to nearly 100 pounds annually. Most of the eggs are taken and pickled for winter consumption, one or two only being left in each nest to hatch.
Fall: By the middle of the summer, or as soon as the egg-laying season is over, the adult eiders desert their mates and begin to move away from their breeding grounds. This might be called the beginning of the fall migration. The immature males of the previous year keep by themselves all summer in large flocks and do not even now mingle with the old males; they spend the summer well out at sea near the drift ice. The young eiders often are late in hatching and are slow in developing, so that it is often quite late in the fall before they are able to fly away with their mothers and join the mixed flocks in their winter resorts. All have to undergo the annual summer double molt, which lasts well into the fall and delays migration, for they are absolutely flightless for a few weeks while the wing quills are molting. So the fall migration is very irregular and much prolonged; many birds spend the winter not far away from their breeding grounds, moving only far enough away to find open water and good feeding grounds.
Winter: On the coast of Greenland many northern eiders spend the winter in the open waters of the fjords. Near Ivigtut, Hagerup (1891) observed that:
In October, 1856, the females began to come into the fjord singly, and in November they came in small flocks. As the weather grew colder the number increased, and it became still larger after Christmas, the period of greatest abundance being March and April. The males did not come in as great numbers into the fjord that winter. I saw, indeed, none at Ivigtut until March, while they were quite numerous at Christmas of the following year.
In the evening these birds generally go as far inland ns there is open ivater, and during the night they are almost constantly on the move. Then their cries may be plainly heard, as also their splashing near the shore; but if a match be lit, they fly aloft with a great uproar.
Eiders are at all seasons essentially sea ducks, but especially so in winter. Low temperatures have no terrors for them; their winter resorts extend from Greenland to the coast of Maine, wherever they can find open water and plenty of food. Even in the roughest winter storms they brave the rigors of the open sea, riding at ease among the white caps, diving for food ‘among the surf-swept ledges, safe from the molestation of the hardiest gunners, and retiring at night to rest on some lonely rock or drifting iceberg.
Mr. Ekblaw writes:
A few elders stay all through the four months winter night in the open waters of Smith Sound. Like the guillemots, the elders find sufficient food in the upwelling of the tidal currents about the Gary Islands to maintain themselves throughout the coldest winters. These strong swift tidal currents running back and forth through Smith Sound between Baflin flay and Kane Basin prevent the formation of widespread ice, and are the controlling factor which permits a luxuriant far-Arctic plant nnd animal life, including a pleasant homeland for the polar Eskimo, in this habitat a thousand miles within the Arctic Circle, far beyond the usual northern limit of life.
The far northern coasts of Greenland afford a sanctuary for the eider, where this splendid species of the duck family may save itself from total extermination. To the lonely, inaccessible rocks and islets of these far northern shores, the egg hunters, and down gatherers are not likely to come in numbers enough or often enough to destroy the species. The natives are too few and the value of the eider in their economic needs is too small to constitute any serious menace to the species. Farther south, in Greenland, and elsewhere, the eider is threatened with extinction, though in Danish Greenland the Danes are vigilantly safeguarding the birds as far as it lies in their power to do so. It is fortunate that the elders have their far northern habitats, relatively safe from man’s devastation.
Breeding range: Coastal islands of Greenland and northeastern America. South on the Atlantic coast of Labrador to the vicinity of Hamilton Inlet and, in the regions north of Hudson Bay, to Baffin Land, Ungava Bay, Southampton Island, and Cape Fullerton, intergrading at these points with dresseri. West about 1000 west longitude, where it may intergrade, somewhere in the Arctic Archipelago, with V-nigra. North to northern Ellesmere Land (810 40′) and northern Greenland (820 on the west coast and 750 on the east coast). Represented in Iceland and Europe by closely allied forms.
Winter range: South along the coast to Maine and rarely to Massachusetts. North to southern Greepland, as far as open water extends.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival: Labrador, Battle Harbor, May 1; Cumberland Sound, April 30; northern Greenland, Etah, April 20; Wellington Channel, latitude 760, May 17; Cape Sabine, latitude 790, May 28; Thank God Harbor, latitude 810, June 4. Late dates of departure: Massachusetts, April 3; Maine, April 6.
Fall migration: Early dates of arrival: Maine, October 19; Massachusetts, late October. Late dates of departure: Thank God Harbor, November 4; Etah, November 1; Cumberland Sound, November 17.
Egg dates: Labrador: Eight records, June 15 to August 2. Greenland: Two records, June 23 and July 2.
SOMATERIA MOLLISSIMA DRESSERI (Sharpe)
Contributed by Charles Wendell Townsend
The eider is a duck of which the Americans should well be proud. Large and splendid in plumage, interesting in courtship display, pleasing in its love notes, susceptible to kind treatment by mQn, and capable of furnishing him with a product of great value; notwithstanding all this, the bird is so incessantly persecuted, especially on its breeding grounds, that it is rapidly diminishing in numbers. If the senseless slaughter is not stayed the eider will continue to diminish until it is extinct. Happily, even now there are signs of a better era. On the Maine coast: the bird’s most southern breeding station: there were less than a dozen pair breeding in 1905. As a result of protection, however, through the efforts of the Audubon Society, their numbers are now increasing, and Bowdish (1909) in 1908 reported as many as 60 eiders breeding on Old Man Island alone. Farther north the persecution still goes on; on the Nova Scotia coast not more than two or three remain to breed, while on the coast of Newfoundland and of the Labrador Peninsula south of Hamilton Inlet, where they formerly bred in immense numbers, but a remnant is left. All the ornithologists from the time of Audubon to the present day who have visited the Labrador coast have bewailed the fact that the eider was singled out for destruction. In “A Plea for the Conservation of the Eider” (Townsend, 1914) occurs the following:
There is no reason why the eider, which furnishes the valuable eider down of commerce, should not be made a source of considerable income without any reduction of its natural abundance. .The principle of conservation can as well be applied to the eider as to a forest. The conservation of the common eider of Europe (Somaterin rnollissime), a species that differs but very slightly from the American bird, has been practiced for many years in Iceland and Norway. The birds are rigidly protected during the nesting season and offered every enconrngement. They are not alloxved to be shot, and even the discharge of a gun in their vicinity is forbidden by law. Suitable nesting sites are furnished close to the houses and the birds become semi-domesticated, losing all fear of man. The people are allowed to take the eggs and down during the first of the season, but the birds are permitted to hatch out and rear a few young in order to keep up the stock. The last down is taken after the birds have left.
Many quotations are given from various authors showing what is being accomplished in Iceland and Norway. For example (Annandale, 1905)
The one offense against the Icelandic bird laws which a native can not commit with impunity is the slaughter of the eider duck. What is more important than many laws, namely public opinion, protects the species, and there seems to be a sentimental interest in it. Probably it is due to the great tameness of the bird, which appears actually to seek the vicinity of a human dwelling for its nesting place and to frequent those parts of the coast which are more frequented by man. The Icelandic eider farms are frequently situated on little islands off the coast. Small circular or oblong erections of rough stones are made among the hummocks, to protect the brooding ducks from ~vind and driving rain. All the sea fowl in these farms become exceedingly tame, as no gun is allowed to be fired and everything liable to disturb the ducks Is carefully banished. Those who know how to handle them can even stroke the backs of the ducks as they sit on their eggs. On such farms there is a separate building or large room entirely devoted to cleaning the down. It was formerly the custom to take away all the down supplied by the female; but this practice was said to lead to great mortality among the ducks through exhaustion, and nowadays each nest Is generally rifled only once before the eggs are hatched, and then again after the young have left it.
Townsend (1914) then goes on to say:
Eiderdown is net only extremely light and elastic but is also one of the poorest conductors of heat. It is therefore an ideal substance for preserving warmth and is the best material for coverlets, puffs, cushions, etc. Its money value is considerable, and there is always a demand for it in the markets of the world. The down obtained from dead eiders, however, soon loses its elasticity and is of little value. The retail price in Boston at the present time of well-cleaned Iceland or Norwegian eiderdown is $14 a pound. It is probable that each nest furnishes: as a very conservative estimate: from an ounce to an ounce and a third of down; therefore 12 to 16 nests or breeding females are needed for each pound. Burton states that the annual supply of down in Iceland rose from 2,000 pounds in 1806 to 7,000 pounds in 1870. One can easily understand the great value of this product even if the producer receives only one-half of the retail price. He could count on at least 50 cents a season for each breeding female in his eider fold.
Imagine the pleasure as well as the profit that could be obtained along the coast of Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine If these birds were treated in the manner above described and flocked and nested about the habitations of man. Then, each dxveller in suitable localities by the sea could have his own flock of these beautiful birds, for the female is as beautiful in her modest dress of shaded and pencilled brown as is the male in his striking raiment of jet black and cream and snow white, delicate sea green and dark navy blue. The cooing notes, so long few or absent in many places, would again resound over the waters, and best of all, to the practical minded, the birds would pay well for their protection by gifts of eggs and of valuable eider down.
How can the present senseless habit of destruction be stopped and this desirable state of affairs brought about? As a preliminary step in Labrador and Newfoundland, I would suggest that a few islands scattered along the coast should be’ made bird reservations, and carefully guarded by one or two families who live on or near the islands. These people should be allowed to take the first set of eggs and down, as well as the down left behind after the duck has hatched out the second set and has left for the season, but should not be allowed the use of firearms, and their Eskimo dogs must be confined during the nesting season. In other words, these people must not frighten the birds and must treat them kindly. The object of the experiment should be spread broadcast along the coast with the request for fair play, so as to restrain others from poaching and frightening the ducks on the reservation.
The rapidity with which the birds ,vill respond to this treatment and the intelligence they will display in the recognition of the safety spots will surprise the people. This is the case wherever bird reservations are established. At Ipswich, Massachusetts, the shores of a small, protected pond are thronged with shore hirds of many species ~vhich display almost no fear of man, while on the neighboring beaches, where they are shot, they are very wary. In the city of Boston the Charles River Basin and Jamaica Pond are the resort of numerous ducks that pay but little attention to the people, while in the sea and ponds near by, where shooting is allowed, the ducks show their usual wildness.
It is useless to pass laws if they are not observed or if the sentiment of the community is against them. This reform, which will be of such great value to our northern seacoast, can only be accomplished by education, and these bird reservations with their eider farms ivili be one of the best means to that end.
Spring: The spring migration occurs on the New England coast in the latter part of March or early in April. The birds have been wintering south to Nantucket and in rare cases to Delaware and Virginia. rrlie adult males go north two or three weeks or a month ahead of the females and immature. In die latter part of May and early in June we found them abundant on the southern coast of the Labrador Peninsula. Some of them were nesting, but it was probable that many of them were on their way farther north along the coast.
Courtship: The courtship of the eider has a certain resemblance to that of the goldeneye, but it is not so spectacular. It can be observed during the latter part of May and in June along the southern coast of the Labrador Peninsula. It is thus described by Doctor Townsend (1910):
The actual courtship of the eider may be recognized from afar by the love note of the male, which can he expressed by the syllables aah-ou or alt-ac-au, frequently repeated, and, while low and pleasing in tone, its volume is so great that it can be heard at a considerabic distance over the water. On a calm day when there were many elders about, the sound was almost constant. While the syllables aah-ou express very well the usual notes, there Is much variation in tone, from a low and gentle pleading to a loud and confident assertion. In fact, the tones vary much as do those of the human voice, and there is a very human Quality In them, so much so that when alone on some solitary isle I was not infrequently startled with the idea that there were men near at hand.
But the showy drake eider does not depend on his voice alone; he displays his charms of dress to best advantage and indulges in well-worn antics. It always seemed to me a pity that the magnificent black belly should disappear when the drake Is swimming on the water, and the bird evidently shares my sentiment, for during courtship he frequently displays this black shield by rising up In front, so that at times in his eagerness he almost stands upon his tail. To further relieve his feelings he throws back his head and occasionally flaps his wings. The movements of the head and neck are an important part of the courtship, and although there is considerable variation in the order and extent of the performance, a complete antic is somewhat as follows: The head is drawn rigidly down, the bill resting against the breast; the head Is then raised up until the bill points vertically upward, and at this time the bill may or may not be opened to emit the love notes. Directly after this the head is occasionally jerked backward a short distance, still rigidly, and then returned to its normal position. All this the drake does swimming near the duck, often facing her in his eagerness, while she floats about indifferently, or at times shows her Interest and appreciation by facing him and throwing up her head a little in a gentle imitation of his forcefulness.
In walking around the shore of Eskimo Island, one of the Mingan group of southern Labrador, on June 3, 1909, we found the water everywhere dotted with these splendid birds, all intent on courtship. In one cove there were 104 birds, in another 80. Only one eider wes in partially immature plumage. The birds were for the most part in pairs, but there were frequent groups of 3 or 4 males ardently courting 1 female. There were also occasional coteries of 15 or 20 where the sexes were about evenly divided.
Nesting: It is evident that the eider prefers to nest in communities, but where diminished in numbers from persecution they nest singly. On some small islands off the southern coast of Labrador we found, in 1909, 20 or 30 nests in the space of an acre; this, too, when the birds were much harassed and evidently less numerous than in former years. The nests are placed on the ground, generally close to salt water and almost always on islands; we have found them, however, a hundred yards or more from the water. The nesting site may be open to the sky in a depression among the rocks of a barren island, but it is often partially or wholly concealed among and under spruce, alder, and laurel bushes or in the grass and rushes.
Mr. Harrison F. Lewis (1922) refers to a nest which he found in an unusual situation, as follows:
On June 24 I found an eider’s nest with six eggs on a l)ush-covered rock in the midst of the second falls of the Kegashka River, more than a mile from the sea. In an expansion of the river near by I saw seven female elders swimming about. Residents of the vicinity informed me that considerable numbers of young elders descended this river each autumn. It would be interesting to know just how and at what age the young elders from the nest which I found left their birthplace, situated as it was in the midst of a foaming cataract.
The nest itself is made of seaweeds, mosses, sticks, and grasses niatted together, but is chiefly distinguished for the famous eider doxvn which is plucked by the mother from her breast. The down is of a dull gray color, very soft, light, and warm, and is supplied in such liberal amounts that the eggs can be entirely covered when the sitting bird is absent. If the departure of the mother is sudden and forced, the eggs are left exposed. The female can supply plenty of down for two sets if the first is stolen, but the story that the male is called upon to supply down for the third set is not true, for he does not go near the nest. The down is rarely clean, as it generally contains hits of moss, twigs, and grasses. If the nests are repeatedly robbed of their down the poor bird is obliged to use other material in its place, and sqme of the nests under these circumstances at the end of the season are practically destitute of down.
Eggs: Under normal circumstances only one set of eggs is laid. Five eggs constitute a setting which, however, varies from 4 to 6 and in one instance, that came under our observation, to 7 eggs.
The eggs are nearly oval in shape, of a rough and lusterless cxtenor, as if the lime had been put on with a coarse brush. Their color is a pale olive green with patches and splashes of dull white. Sometimes their color is pale brownish or olive. The measurements of 59 eggs in various collections average 76 by 50.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 83.5 by 54.8, 65 by 44.5, and 66.4 by 41.5 millimeters.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: As the eggs, young, and plumage changes of the common eider are exactly like those of time northern eider, no further attempt ~viL1 be made to describe them here, and the reader is referred to what has been written on this subject under the foregoing subspecies.]
Young: The period of incubation is 28 days, and the incubation is performed only by the female. The young as soon as hatched are led to the water by the female, who is also said to help them over difficult places by carrying them in her bill. From the first they are expert divers in shallow water, and are assiduously tended by the mother who draws them from danger, or acts the part of the wounded duck to distract attention while they hide among the rocks or in the grass. The downy young are of grayish brown color, lighter on the belly. There is a pale line along the side of the head over and under the eye.
Plumages: In his full nuptial plumage the male eider is a splendid sight, a very conspicuous object. It has been said by Thayer that the drake’s plumage is in reality concealing, as the white matches the snow, the green and dark blue the ice and the water, and the black the rocky cliffs. But to one who is familiar with the bird, either among snow and ice, on the open sea, or under the beetling crags, on rocks or among mosses and dwarf spruces of the northern bogs, such an idea does not appeal, for the bird is always conspicuous. The display he makes of his plumage in courtship, and the fact that he retires after this season is over into the eclipse plumage which is similar to that of the female, is good proof: if proof were needed: that the courtship dress is for show only and not for protection. The eclipse plumage worn by the males and the nearly similar brown plumage of the females and young is indeed an inconspicuous one, and the birds wearing this are to a large extent protectively colored. I have almost stepped on the nesting female and did not see her until she ran from the nest; and at a distance on the ocean, one may see a band of eiders of which only the males are visible until a nearer approach, when one is surprised to find an equal number of females.
After the nesting season is over the males retire to the outer islands and rocks, where they are for a time unable to fly owing to the extensive molt into the eclipse phimage. According to Audubon the sterile females molt at the same time, but the females with broods do not molt until fully two weeks later.
With rare exceptions all the eiders in the region of the Mingan Islands in southern Labrador we found to be in full adult plumage in the last half of May and the first half of June. In the first half of July, on the southern part of the eastern coast, many birds were seen that were molting from the nuptial drake plumage into the eclipse, while in the last part of July and early in August, in the Mingan region, we found nearly all the eiders to be in the brown plumage; only a very few showed traces of the brilliant nuptial dress of the drakes. Native hunters say that the drakes leave the coast about the last of July, but it is probable that this is apparent only, and that the brown birds are females and immature birds of both sexes, as ~vel1 as adult drakes in the eclipse plumage. The change from the eclipse to the nuptial plumage occcurs in November and December and from the immature to the first nuptial dress in the spring, after the 1st of March. It probably takes three years before the full drake plumage is acquired, although there 15 considerable variation in this.
Eiders with V-shaped marks under the chin suggestive of Somaterict v-nigra of the Pacific coast have been reported on the Atlantic coast by W. A. Stearns (1883). Arthur H. Norton (1897) says that “the black lancet is a character of frequent occurrence in the young drakes of S. dresseri, and there are strong reasons for the belief that it occurs in S. mollisimcz borealis.” He describes four specimens where the mark occurs in S. dresseri. He states that they are all immature birds and “show nothing than can be considered as of a hybridic nature.”
Food: The favorite food of the eider is the edible mussel (Mytelis edulis), although various other mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, and worms are taken with avidity. Mr. Mackay (1890) reports the finding of sculpin spawn in the stomach of the eider. Such food is particularly abundant around rocky ledges, and the birds gather there from all sides during the day, but toward evening they fly out to sea to spend the night.
Behavior: The eider is an expert diver and uses the wings under water. This is evident from the fact that it flaps open the wings for the first stroke. If alarmed when diving it often comes out of the water flying, merely changing from subaqueous to aerial flight.
Floating or swimming on the water, the head and neck are generally drawn down as if resting at ease. When on the alert the neck is stretched up and is much elongated. The tail is often cocked up at an angle.
The flight of the eider is generally close to the water, swift and powerful, but in the absence of a head wind the bird often flaps along the surface of the water for several yards before it is able to rise. The neck is stretched out and the bill is pointed obliquely downward at an angle of 45O~ a field mark of some value in the recognition of the bird.
The speed of flight was estimated by Cartwright (1792), who recorded it in his Labrador Journal, as follows:
In my way hither I measured the flight of the eider ducks by the following method, viz, on arriving off Duck Island, 6 miles distant from Henry Tickle, I Caused the people to lie on their oars, and when I saw the flash of the guns, which were fired at a flock of ducks as they passed through, I observed by my watch how long they were In flying abreast of us. The result of above a dozen observations ascertained the rate to be 90 miles an hour.
The male, aside from his courtship notes or love song already described, appears to be a silent bird. The female utters at times a rolling quack or a succession of sharp kuk kuA~ kuks; the latter is heard when she is suddenly disturbed at the nest.
The great black-backed gull is probably the greatest enemy of the eider, aside from the arch enemy, man. Nesting in the same region and having a voracious progeny to support this gull takes frequent opportunities of pillaging the nest and capturing the downy young. The raven also eats both eggs and young. Another enemy, which is now entirely extirpated from the Labrador region south of Hamilton Inlet, is the polar bear. Cartwright (1792) gives several instances of their depredations. He says in his Journal, under date of June 18, 1777:
On examining the paunches of the bears (an old bitch polar bear and her cub), found them well filled with eggs. I had often heretofore observed that all the nests upon an island had been robbed and the down pulled out, but I did not know till now how those things happened.
Winter: In the fall migration eiders arrive on the New England coast late in November or early in December. The eider winters throughout its range wherever there is open water and as far south regularly as Nantucket, rarely as far as Delaware and Virginia. Along the Maine coast it is still abundant in winter, although its numbers are much reduced over those of former days. On the Massachusetts coast the eider may be found off Cape Ann and Cape Cod, and especially in the tempestuous and shallow seas about Nantucket.
Mackay (1890) records the shooting of 87 eiders in a December day in 1859 by one man near the Salvages, small rocky islands off Rockport, on the end of Cape Ann. I was told that in 1875 a hundred eiders were shot there by a gunner in January. Of late years one is lucky to find any, but on March 14, 1909, I saw a flock of 17 near the Salvages. Mackay (1890) says that as the birds come in to feed in the morning they alight some distance outside these rocks and swim in in a compact body. They dive for the mussels outside the breakers. On March 18, 1875, he saw a flock between Muskeget and Nantucket Islands that he estimated contained 12,000 birds, and a flock near the harbor of Nantucket in 1890 of about 1,500. In March, 1894, he estimated about 200 eiders near Muskeget and 2,000 near Cape Poge, Marthas Vineyard. Also between 4,000 and 5,000 near Woods Hole, attracted by the great beds of the edible mussel.
Game: Eiders are shot in winter off the Maine coast from blinds among the rocks off the islands and occasionally from boats. Wooden decoys are used and the sport requires much energy and endurance ~n the winter seas. The birds are very shy, easily taking alarm, and with their strong flight and well-made armor of thick feathers and down are very difficult to kill. Cripples are rarely recovered, as they escape by rapid diving and long swimming under water. Their value for down should, however, preserve them from persecution at all seasons.
Breeding range: Jslands along the coasts of Labrador (south of Hamilton Inlet), Newfoundland, eastern Quebec (north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence), Nova Scotia, and Maine (west to Penobscot Bay). Also in the southern half of Hudson Bay and James Bay at least as far north as Richmond Gulf, Southampton Island, and Cape Fullerton. It intergrades with borealis at the northern limits of its breeding range.
Winter range: Northeastern coasts, from Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence south regularly to Massachusetts (Vineyard Sound and Nantucket), rarely to New Jersey, and casually farther south.
Spring migration: Northward movement starts late in March or early in April. Usual date of departure from Massachusetts is about April 20; unusually late dates are, Connecticut, Milford, May 29; Massachusetts, May 18.
Fall migration: Early dates of arrival in Massachusetts: Essex County, September 20; Cohasset, September 18; usual date of arrival is early in November.
Casual records: Inland wanderings have occurred as far west as Wisconsin (Lake Koshkonong, November, 1891), Iowa (Sioux City, November 1, 1901), and Colorado (Loveland).
Egg dates: Labrador Peninsula: Twenty-five records, May 20 to July 9; thirteen records, June 5 to 20. Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia: Ten records, May 25 to July 5; five records, June 1~ to July 1.
SOMATERIA V-NIGRA Gray
The common eider of the Pacific coast is closely related to the ciders of the Atlantic coast, perhaps more closely than its present status in nomenclature would seem to indicate. The ranges of the Pacific eider and the northern eider on the Arctic coasts of North America come very close together and perhaps overlap, with a good chance for hybridizing or intergrading as subspecies.
Some interesting specimens have been taken in eastern waters which are worth considering. Hagerup (1891) mentions specimens of Somateria mollissima, taken by Holboell in Greenland, which showed the black lancet-shaped figure on the throat so characteristic of S. v-nigra. Holboell supposed that these were hybrids with S. spectabilis which also has this black V. Mr. Arthur H. Norton (1897) obtained several specimens of immature males of S. dresseri on the coast of Maine, from which he inferred “that the black lancet is a character of frequent occurrence in the young drakes of A. dresseri; and there are strong reasons for the belief that it occurs in S. mollissimA borealis.” Mr. W. A. Stearns (1883) obtained similar specimens on the coast of Labrador and even recorded the Pacific cider as of regular occurrence there. The occasional appearance of this mark in immature males might perhaps indicate an occasional cross between two species, but it seems more reasonable to regard it as a reversion to an ancestral type, which would mean that at some date, probably not very remote, these three eiders belonged to a single species and perhaps even now they are merely intergrading subspecies. In this connection I would refer the reader to Dr. Charles W. Townsend’s (1916a) interesting paper and plate showing integradation between S. mollissma borealis and S. dresseri.
Whatever the systematic status of the Pacific eider may prove to be, its habits and its lift history are practically the same as those of the Atlantic species. and nearly everything that has been written about the latter would apply equally well to the former. Therefore I shall not attempt to write a full life history of this species, which would be largely repetition.
Nesting: By the time that we reached the Aleutian Islands, early in June, the vast horde of ciders that winter in the open waters of this region had departed, to return to their extensive breeding grounds farther north. But we found the Pacific eider well distributed. its a breeding bird, on all of the islands west of Unalaska. They were particularly abundant about Kiska Harbor in small flocks and mated pairs. The~’ frequented the rocky beaches at the bases of the cliffs. where they sat on the loose rocks. fed in the kelp beds about them. and built their nests among the large boulders above high-water mark. Here on June 19, 1911, I examined two nests of this species; one, containing 5 fresh eggs, was concealed in a hollow under or between two tufts of tall, rank grass which grew back of a large boulder on the beach at the foot of a high grassy cliff; the other, containing 4 fresh eggs, was hidden in the long grass at the top of a steep grassy slope; both nests were well supplied with down.
A pair of Peale falcons were flying about some cliffs, and probably had a nest, not very far from where we found these eiders’ nests. This reminds me of what Mr. Lucien M. Turner (1886) says, on this subject:
Another peculiarity that was brought to my notice by a native, was that these birds (the elders) usually seek some slope where the duck hawk has its nest on the high point forming one end of the slope. This was true In three instances that came under my observation. The elders were more numerous in such localities than otherwise. The natives always are glad when the hawk comes screaming overhead, as the canoe is being paddled along the shore, for they know the nest of the hawk is near and that many nests of the eider will be found close by.
About St. Michael the nesting habits of the Pacific eider are somewhat different. Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says:
Their courtship must be conducted before the birds reach the breeding ground, as I have never seen any demonstrations such as are usual among mating birds. The small flocks seen at first glance give place at once to soiltary pairs, which resort to the salt marshes. The nesting site is usually a dry spot close to a small pond or a tide creek and not often in close proximity to the seashore. The moss-grown slope of some small knoll, a grassy tussock, or a depression made on an open flat, but hidden by the thin growth of surrounding vegetation, are all chosen as nest sites.
The first evening after my arrival at St. ~1ichael I walked back on the fiat about 200 yards from the fort and put up a female from 5 fresh eggs. The nest was thickly lined with down and concealed by dwarf willows and other low Arctic vegetation. This was the only instance noted by me where the nest was so near human habitations. The nest is usually lined with dead grasses and sometimes fragments of moss when the first egg Is laid, and the down is added as the eggs multiply. The male is a constant attendant of the female until her eggs are nearly all deposited, when he begins to lose interest in family affairs, and dozens of them may be found at all hours sunning themselves upon the long reefs about shore, and if we are behind the scenes on the marshes they may be seen flying silently back to their partners as the dusky twilight of night approaches from 8 to 10 in the evening.
Mr. F. Seymour Hersey contributes the following notes:
Unlike the spectacled, Steller, and king eiders, which spend considerable time and frequently nest among the tundra ponds some distance back from salt water, I found the Pacific eider to be almost exclusively a bird of the seacoast during the breeding season. About St. Michael Bay, portions of the shore of which is covered by volcanic rocks, these birds were quite abundant and were often seen about the rocky island at the entrance to the “canal,” swimming in the surf or resting on the rocks and preening their feathers. They were also frequently met with in pairs flying up or down the canal near the entrance, but did not seem to follow it farther than the point where it begins to narrow, a mile or so from the bay. The land at this point is 6 or 7 feet above the reach of normal high tides, level, and quite dry, and with very few ponds. The ground is thickly and softly carpeted with a growth of mosses, creeping vines, and such Arctic vegetation as is common to this region. Here the birds nest, making a deep cup-like hollow In the thick mosses, the edge flush with the surface and abundantly lined with a thick wall of soft gray down.
Apparently the most extensive breeding grounds of this species are in the vicinity of Franklin and Liverpool Bays, where MacFarlane (1891) collected and sent to Washington over a thousand eggs. He says:
The nest is usually a shallow cavity in the ground, more or less plentifully lined with down. We found some nests on a sloping bank at a distance of 300 or more feet from the sea. Others were also on the mainland, but the bulk of those secured by us were obtained from sandy islets in the bays.
Eggs: The Pacific eider has been credited with laying anywhere from 5 to 10 eggs, but probably the larger sets are exceptional. The eggs are indistinguishable in every way from those of molli.ssirna borealis and dresseri, so I will not attempt to describe them here. The measurements of 85 eggs in the United States National Museum and the writer’s collections average 75.9 by 50.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 86.5 by 52, 74.5 by 55.5, 70 by 48.5 and 71.5 by 47 millimeters.
Young: Although incubation is performed wholly by the female, and although the male usually deserts the female after the eggs are all laid, he sometimes remains near her during the process of incubation and may help to guard the nest or young.
Doctor Nelson (1887) says:
From the 15th to the 20th of June nearly all the males desert their partners and are thenceforth found at sea or about outlying reefs and islands in large flocks, as already described. Toward the end of June the first young appear, hut the majority are not hatched until the first of July. As the young are hatched they are led to the nearest large pond or tide creek and thence to the sheltered bays and mouths of streams on the seacoast. About this time the females lose their quill feathers and, like the young, are very expert in diving at the flash of a gun. At this time the Eskimo amuse themselves by throwing spears at the young, but the latter are such excellent divers that they are rarely lilt. As a rule the young do not fly before the 10th of September, and broods with the female are often seen unable to fly even later.
Mr. Hersey’s notes on the young of this species say:
When the young are hatched the femi4e leads her brood to some small pond or lagoon just back from the coast, and apparently they do not take to the open sea or even the outer bays until well grown. I never saw any young birds on St. Michael Bay until they had become strong on the wing. A female with a brood of young was found in a small lagoon just back from the beach on Stuart Island on July 5, 1915. In her endeavors to lead her brood to safety the mother bird was absolutely fearless. I stood on the bank within 30 feet of her and watched for about 20 minutes. She splashed about in the water, making quite a commotion, all the while calling in a low gut. tural tone. Some of the young swam around her while others dove. Those that went under seemed unable to stay down more than the smallest fraction of a minute and reappeared almost instantaneously, bobbing up as buoyantly as corks. After considerable difficulty she got her brood around her and started to swim away, but the young did not follow and, after swimming some 12 or 15 feet and calling, she returned and the performance was repeated.
Whether the actions of the young were due to panic or Inability to realize the presence of danger I could not tell, but they appeared to me to he decidedly stupid. I know of no other duck, not excepting the oldsquaw, which at times seems to he devoid of any sense of danger, that would not have led her young to safety in a fraction of the time it took this eider.
Plumages: The downy young are absolutely indistinguishable, so far as I can see, from those of either mollissirna or dresseri, and the molts and plumages of all three are practically identical.
Mr. Hersey secured for me a fine specimen of an adult male in full eclipse plumage, of which he says, in his notes:
The molt of the males into eclipse plumage takes place during July, and by August 1 the birds are flightless. This flightless period is probably spent on the open sea where they are practically safe. On August 11, 1915, a bird in full eclipse plumage was secured on St. Michael Bay. The new primaries were about 8 inches long, hut the bird was still unable to fly. Its diving and swimming powers fully compensated for its loss of flight, and it ~vas captured only after more than four hours’ pursuit, when a mistake in judgment brought it to the surface, after a long dive, within range of our boat.
Food: The Pacific eider apparently does not differ from its Atlantic relative in its food and feeding habits.
Behavior: Pacific eiders have similar enemies and as meekly submit to their depredations as do their eastern relatives. IN’IacFarlane (1891) saw a snowy owl eating the eggs in an eider’s nest. Mr. Turner (1886) writes:
The bird is very shy except when on land during boisterous weather. At that time the natives of the western islands of the Aleutian chain used small haudnets to lhro~v over the birds as they sat stupidly on the shore. A bright night ~vith a hard gale of wind was the best time to secure them. The birds then sit in a huddle and many are caught at one thro~v of the net. The natives assert that the common hair seals catch these birds when on the water and drag them under to play with them; hence, these birds are constantly on the alert for seals and take flight as soon as a seal is discovered near.
Winter: The Pacific eider has a more decided migration than the Atlantic species, for, though it breeds abundantly on the Arctic coast of Alaska and eastward to the Coppermine River, it is not known to winter north of Bering Straits, as there is no open water to be found in this portion of the Arctic Ocean. The main winter resort of the Pacific eider is in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands, though it has been detected in winter as far north as the Diomedes. This means a migration route of about 2,000 miles from the remotest breeding grounds. On the other hand, the birds which breed in the Aleutian Islands and south of the Alaska Peninsula probably do not migrate far from their breeding grounds.
Breeding range: Coasts of northwestern America and northeastern Asia. East to Coronation Gulf and west to Cape Irkaipi], Siberia. South on both coasts of Bering Sea to the Commander and Aleutian Islands, and eastward along the south side of the Alaskan Peninsula to Kodiak Island and Cook Inlet (Chugachick Bay). North to Banks Land (Cape Kellett) and Victoria Land (Walker Bay). It may intergrade with borealis at the eastern extremity of its breeding range, in the vicinity of 1000 west longitude.
Winter range: Mainly in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula, extending but little south of its breeding range and north as far as open water extends, sometimes as far as the Diomede Islands.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival: Alaska, Point Hope, April 15; Point Barrow, May 16; and Demarcation Point, May 26; northeastern Siberia, May 28. Usual date of arrival at St. Michael, Alaska, is from May 10 to 20.
Fall migration: Birds which breed in Coronation Gulf leave in Septemher and migrate about 2,000 miles. Last seen at Point Barrow November 4.
Casual records: Has wandered as far south on the Pacific coast as Washington (Tacoma, January 6, 1906), and has been recorded a number of times in the interior of Canada, as follows: Severn House, 1858; Fort Resolutio i. 1861; Fort Good Elope, June14 and 30, 1904; and Manitoha (Giroux. November 11, 1911, and Lake Manitoba, Octoher 23, 1911).
Egg dates: Arctic Canada: Thirty records, June 6 to July 15; fifteen records, July 2 to S. Alaska: Sixteen records, June 10 to July 12; eight records, June 20 to 29.