King eider

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King eider
King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) (13667616745).jpg
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Subfamily: Merginae
Genus: Somateria
Species: S. spectibilis
Binomial name
Somateria spectabilis
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The king eider (pronounced /ˈ.dər/) (Somateria spectabilis) is a large sea duck that breeds along Northern Hemisphere Arctic coasts of northeast Europe, North America and Asia. The birds spend most of the year in coastal marine ecosystems at high latitudes, and migrate to Arctic tundra to breed in June and July. They lay four to seven eggs in a scrape on the ground lined with grass and down.


When he first described the king eider in 1758, in the 10th edition of his opus Systema Naturae, Carl Linnaeus assigned it to the genus Anas, along with the rest of the ducks.[2] In 1819, William Elford Leach moved it and the other large eiders to the genus Somateria, where it has remained since.[3] It is very closely related to the other members of its genus, and is known to hybridise with the Common Eider.[4] Despite its very large range, it is monotypic.[2]

The genus name Somateria is a combination of the Greek words sōma or sōmatos, meaning "body", and erion, meaning "wool"; the combination (i.e. "wooly body") is a reference to the eider's famously thick, soft down.[5] The specific name spectabilis is Latin for "showy", "remarkable" or "worth seeing", a reference to the handsomeness of the adult male's plumage.[5] The bird's common name, king eider, is a direct translation of its Icelandic name.[6] It is called "king" because of the orange, crown-like knob above the male's bill; the male's multicoloured plumage also suggests royal robes.[5] "Eider" is a Dutch, German or Swedish word derived from the Icelandic word æður (meaning eider), itself derived from the Old Norse æthr.[7]


The king eider is a large sea duck, measuring 50–70 cm (20–28 in) in length with a wingspan of 86–102 cm (34–40 in).[8] Males are, on average, heavier than females, with a mean weight of 1.668 kg (3.68 lb) for males and 1.567 kg (3.45 lb) for females.[9] An individual bird's mass can vary considerably from season to season—from as little as 0.9 kg (2.0 lb) to as much as 2.2 kg (4.9 lb).[10] Like all eiders, the species is sexually dimorphic; the male is slightly larger[11] and, in breeding plumage, much more colourful than the female.[10] The male is unmistakable with its mostly black body, buff-tinged white breast and multicoloured head. The head, nape and neck are a pale bluish grey. The cheek is pale green. The bill, separated rom the face by a thin black line, is red with a white nail and a large, distinctive yellow knob. Some tertials are curved up and form "spurs" along the back.[12]

The female (occasionally colloquially referred to as a "queen eider")[13] is a warm brown colour overall, slightly paler on the head and neck. The feathers on her upperparts and flanks are marked with blackish chevrons, while those on her neck and head bear fine black streaks. She has a buffy spot at the base of her bill and a buffy eye ring which extends into a downward curving stripe behind her eye.[8] Her bill is variously decribed as black[14] or grey, and her legs and feet are greenish-grey.[8]

An immature drake is typically all dark with a white breast and a yellow bill patch. Eclipse adult drakes are similar but lack the white breast.

Habitat and range[edit]

The king eider winters in arctic and subarctic marine areas, most notably in the Bering Sea, the west coast of Greenland, eastern Canada and northern Norway. Wintering birds can form large flocks on suitable coastal waters, with some flocks exceeding 100,000 birds. It also occurs annually off the northeastern United States, Scotland and Kamchatka. Breeding areas include the Arctic coastal tundra of the north coast of Alaska.


Food and feeding[edit]

The king eider's foraging strategies change depending on the season. For much of the year, it is at sea; there, it dives for benthic invertebrates. During the breeding season, it does more of its foraging on freshwater lakes and ponds, where it dabbles, feeding primarily on small invertebrates plucked from the surface of the water.[15]


Breeding is non-colonial, with the female incubating 4–7 eggs for 22 to 23 days. The young are raised collectively by the females.[12]


The male's song is a quavering, dove-like cooing, transcribed as croo-croo-croo[16] or hoo-hoo-hooo.[8] The female makes a variety of low clucks,[8] grunts and growls.[16]


The oldest known king eider was a female that lived at least 18 years 11 months. She was ringed (banded) as an adult south of Gambell, Alaska in 1940, and shot in 1958 in Barrow, Alaska.[17]


The king eider is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

Traditional Uses[edit]

The king eider, or qengallek[pronunciation?] in Yup'ik, is a regular source of fresh meat in the spring. They begin their migration past the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in late April and are hunted in great numbers. In May, several hundred thousand king eiders pass Point Barrow in northern Alaska on their way to Alaskan and Canadian breeding grounds.



  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Somateria spectabilis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Carboneras (1992), p. 621.
  3. ^ "ITIS Report: Somateria". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  4. ^ Trefry, Sarah A.; Dickson, D. Lynne; Hoover, Andrea K. (September 2007). "A Common Eider X King Eider Hybrid Captured on the Kent Peninsula, Nunavut". Arctic 60 (3): 251–254. JSTOR 40512893. (registration required (help)). 
  5. ^ a b c Sandrock, James; Prior, Jean C. (2014). The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest. Iowa Press, IA, US: University of Iowa Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-60938-225-4. 
  6. ^ Smith, Alfred Charles (1887). The Birds of Wiltshire. London, UK: R. H. Porter. p. 485. 
  7. ^ "Eider". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Ogilvie, Malcolm A.; Young, Steve (1998). Wildfowl of the World. London, UK: New Holland Publishers. p. 150. ISBN 1-84330-328-0. 
  9. ^ Dunning, Jr., John B. (2008). CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses (2 ed.). Boca Raton, FL, US: CRC Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-4200-6444-5. 
  10. ^ a b Gavrilo, Maria (2005). "King Eider". In Nuttall, Mark. Encyclopedia of the Arctic. New York, NY, US: Routledge. p. 1088. ISBN 978-1-57958-436-8. 
  11. ^ Madge, Steve (1988). Wildfowl. London, UK: Christopher Helm. pp. 262–263. ISBN 978-1-4081-3762-8. 
  12. ^ a b Godfrey, W. Earl (1966). The Birds of Canada. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada. p. 77. 
  13. ^ Gordon, Seton Paul (1922). Amid Snowy Wastes: Wild Life on the Spitsbergen Archipelago. London, UK: Cassell & Company. p. 90. LCCN 23008883. 
  14. ^ Dunne, Pete (2006). Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. New York, NY, US: Houghton Mifflin. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-618-23648-0. 
  15. ^ Oppel, Steffen; Powell, Abby N.; Butler, Malcolm G. (2011). "King Eider Foraging Effort During the Pre-Breeding Period in Alaska". The Condor 113: 52. doi:10.1525/cond.2011.100077.  editJSTOR 10.1525/cond.2011.100077
  16. ^ a b Kear, Janet, ed. (2005). Ducks, Geese and Swans. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 698. ISBN 0-19-861009-2. 
  17. ^ Clapp, Roger B.; Klimkiewicz, M. Kathleen; Kennard, John H. (Spring 1982). "Longevity Records of North American Birds: Gavidae through Alcidae" (PDF). Journal of Field Ornithology 53 (2): 81–124. JSTOR 4512701. (registration required (help)). 

Cited works[edit]

Identification and ageing[edit]

External links[edit]