Common Eider

The Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large sea duck which is distributed over the northern coasts of Europe, North America and eastern Siberia. It breeds in Arctic and some northern temperate regions, but winters somewhat further south in temperate zones, where it can form large flocks on suitable coastal waters.

The nest is built close to the sea and is lined with eiderdown which is plucked from the female’s breast. This soft and warm lining was (and in some areas, still is) harvested for filling pillows and quilts but has been largely replaced by down from domestic farm geese as well as synthetic alternatives. The harvest is sustainable as it can be done after the ducklings leave the nest with no harm to the birds.

It is characterized by its bulky shape and large wedge-shaped bill. The male is unmistakable with its black-and-white plumage and green nape. The female is a brown bird, but can still be readily distinguished from all ducks except other eider species on size and head shape. This duck’s call is a pleasant “ah-ooo.” It has been described as being “like a bunch of gossipy old women, expressing surprise.” This species is often readily approachable.

Drakes of the European, eastern North American and Asia/western North American races can be distinguished by minor plumage and bill color differences.

This species dives for crustaceans and mollusks, with mussels being a favored food.

A particularly famous colony of Eiders is the one on the Farne Islands in Northumberland, Britain. These birds were the subject of the first ever bird protection laws, brought in by Saint Cuthbert in the year 676. About 1,000 pairs still nest there every year. As St Cuthbert is the patron saint of Northumberland, it was natural that the Eider should be chosen as the county’s emblem bird species; the birds are still often called Cuddy’s ducks the area, ‘Cuddy’ being the familiar form of Cuthbert.