COMMON EIDER – (Somateria mollissima)
The Common Eider is the largest of the ducks observed in PEI (and North America), at around 65 cm (2 ft.) long. The drake is light grey-white on top and black under. The wing primaries are white and the other wing feathers are black. The head is black and the face is white. The bird’s bill has a wedge shape, and in the male it is greenish with a yellow tip. The legs and feet are grey. Females are mottled brown all over, and have grey legs and feet. The bill is greenish but without a yellow tip.
The Latin name ‘Somateria’ is from the ancient Greek and means ‘body’ and ‘wool’, in reference to the bird’s down. And ‘mollissima’ means ‘very soft’, also in reference to the bird’s down. The English name ‘Eider’ apparently derives from Old Norse for ‘duck’.
Molluscs are some of the favorite foods of common eiders, along with other invertebrates and crustaceans found on the ocean floor. As opposed to gulls who drop shells on hard surfaces to break them and eat their contents, eiders swallow them whole and use their powerful gizzards to crush the shells before excreting them.
Common eiders breed in large colonies and females will lay their eggs in different nests, not just their own. This is not viewed as parasitism but rather as part of their social structure. Another example of such a social structure is when the female common eiders bring their ducklings to the water, they can form large groups called ‘creches’.
Although not breeding on PEI, the common eider is very present (common to very common) around the island throughout all seasons. Its breeding range covers the coastal areas of the Arctic Ocean in North America, Europe and Siberia, and Hudson Bay, and also the Nova Scotia coast on the Atlantic Ocean.
Conservation: Hunted extensively for its prized down, the common eider was almost driven to extinction at some point in the past. Down harvesting has been practiced as far back as the Viking civilization.
Today there are eider ‘farms’ in Iceland, where wild common eiders are ‘encouraged’ to build their nests in specific areas and then after the chicks are gone, the down is harvested. Iceland is the main exporter of pure eider down, mainly to Japan for their futons. Because it is so rare and in high demand, a comforter or futon with pure eiderdown may sell for several thousand dollars.
The Common eider is currently listed as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN due to population declines, which appear to be related to oil pollution in their habitat, over fishing of their prey, coming into conflict with aquaculture industries such as mussel farms, and unsustainable hunting (for sport or food) in some areas.