My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Common eider (Somateria mollissima)

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Common eider (Somateria mollissima)

The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large (50–71 cm (20–28 in) in body length) sea-duck that 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 farther south in temperate zones, when it can form large flocks on coastal waters. It can fly at speeds up to 113 km/h (70 mph).

The common eider is both the largest of the four eider species and the largest duck found in Europe and in North America (except for the Muscovy duck which only reaches North America in a wild state in southernmost Texas and south Florida). It measures 50 to 71 cm (20 to 28 in) in length, weighs 0.81 to 3.04 kg (1.8 to 6.7 lb) and spans 80–110 cm (31–43 in) across the wings. The average weight of 22 males in the North Atlantic was 2.21 kg (4.9 lb) while 32 females weighed an average of 1.92 kg (4.2 lb). 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 the basis of size and head shape. The drake’s display call is a strange almost human-like “ah-ooo,” while the hen utters hoarse quacks. The species is often readily approachable.

This species dives for crustaceans and molluscs, with mussels being a favoured food. The eider will eat mussels by swallowing them whole; the shells are then crushed in their gizzard and excreted. When eating a crab, the eider will remove all of its claws and legs, and then eat the body in a similar fashion.

It is abundant, with populations of about 1.5–2 million birds in both North America and Europe, and also large but unknown numbers in eastern Siberia.

Eiders are colonial breeders. They nest on coastal islands in colonies ranging in size of less than 100 to upwards of 10,000-15,000 individuals. Female eiders frequently exhibit a high degree of natal philopatry, where they return to breed on the same island where they were hatched. This can lead to a high degree of relatedness between individuals nesting on the same island, as well as the development of kin-based female social structures. This relatedness has likely played a role in the evolution of co-operative breeding behaviours amongst eiders. Examples of these behaviours include laying eggs in the nests of related individuals and crèching, where female eiders team up and share the work of rearing ducklings.

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



On to my photos:

These photos were shot in March of 2015 at the Muskegon Lake channel to Lake Michigan. I was holding off doing this post, hoping for better photos, and possibly getting photos of a male, but this species is such a rare visitor to Michigan that it is highly unlikely that I’ll ever see this species again. In fact, it wasn’t even on the list from the Audubon Society that I’m working from originally, I had to add it to the list.

Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


Common eider

Common eider


This is number 195 in my photo life list, only 155 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



19 responses

  1. Interesting history of the English colony. If I remember correctly, Eider ducks were hunted for their down feathers. Beautiful photos of these birds, Jerry!

    April 25, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! Yes, the eiders were hunter for their down, used to make pillows and isolate clothing. These days, what eider down that is used comes from either down collected from nests after the young leave, or from other sustainable methods.

      April 25, 2016 at 2:09 pm

  2. Aren’t those two black and white ducks in the next to last photo male eiders?

    April 25, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    • Thanks, but those other ducks are common goldeneye, too small to be eiders, but I couldn’t crop them out of the photo.

      April 25, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      • I think I may have some shots of male Common Eider. However, they were taken from a great distance so may not be usable.

        April 25, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      • Thanks again, you may have to start a series like this yourself, since you see a wide variety of birds also.

        April 25, 2016 at 11:56 pm

  3. Thanks for the information and your excellent photographs.

    April 25, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan!

      April 25, 2016 at 2:11 pm

  4. See I’m learning from your post again! I knew the down in my duvet came from the eider duck but I didn’t know what they looked like until I saw your great photos. Also I didn’t know the history about St Cuthbert but now I do! Thank you again!

    April 25, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    • Thank you very much! I love doing this series because I’m learning so much from it. I knew that eider down was considered the best, but I didn’t know about St. Cuthbert until I did the research for this post.

      April 25, 2016 at 11:59 pm

  5. It looks like it was cold that day, but the duck probably didn’t mind.

    April 25, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    • Thanks Allen! It was cold that day, which may be why the eider decided to stop here in Michigan. Also, eider down is one of the best natural insulating materials known to man, so the duck is well equipped to deal with the cold.

      April 25, 2016 at 11:55 pm

  6. Very nice series of photos.

    April 25, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare!

      April 25, 2016 at 11:53 pm

  7. Other than it appears that this bird can walk on water, it’s pretty common-looking. I guess every bird can’t be a cardinal!

    Nice, Jerry.

    April 25, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    • Thank you very much Judy! The eider wasn’t walking on water, it was riding a slab of ice down the channel while looking into the water for food as it drifted along. Smart duck.

      April 25, 2016 at 11:52 pm

      • 😉

        April 26, 2016 at 12:37 am

  8. Nenkin Seikatsu

    Wow. It looks neither “common”, nor much like a duck.

    April 27, 2016 at 7:49 am

    • Thank you very much! It may be common along the ocean shores, but not in the freshwater Great Lakes.

      April 27, 2016 at 2:12 pm