Birds – American Eider

(Somateria dresseri)

Called also: SEA DUCK

Length—23 inches.

Male—Upper parts white, except the crown of head, which is black, with a greenish white line running into it from behind and a greenish tinge on the feathers at sides of back of head. Upper breast white with a reddish blush; lower breast and all under parts, including tail above and below, black.

Female—Upper parts bully brown, streaked and varied with darker brown and black; back darkest; breast yellow buff, barred with black, and shading into grayish brown, indistinctly margined with buff underneath.

Range—Nests around Nova Scotia and Labrador, migrating south-ward in winter to New England and the Great Lakes, more rarely south to Delaware.

Season—Winter visitor.

When resting under our down coverlets on a winter night, or tucked about with pillows on the divan of a modern drawing-room, how many of us give a thought to the duck that has been robbed of her soft warm feathers for our comfort, or take the trouble to make her acquaintance when she brings the brood that were despoiled of their bedding to furnish ours to visit our coast in winter ? It may be said in extenuation of our apparent indifference that eiders keep well out at sea, and come at a season when boating ceases to be a pleasure. Then, too, there is little to interest one during the winter in a bird whose chief concern appears to be deep diving. It is on the constant errand of getting mussels and other fish food which the saddle-back gull often snatches from it at the end of an unequal race if the duck does not end it suddenly by plunging under water. It is to Labrador and the north Atlantic islands that one must go to know this bird at home, and most of us are willing to do such travelling in the easy chairs of our library.

Before these ducks have left our shores in March, courting has already begun; sharp contests occur, and the vanquished or superannuated males wander about in milder climates than the mated lovers fly to. Though no drake may be credited with great depth of feeling for his mate, the eider goes to the extreme of helping her make a nest of moss and seaweed among the rocks or low bushes under stunted fir trees, and will – even pluck the down from his own breast to cover the eggs when hers has been persistently robbed. Ha-ho, ha-ho, he half moans, half coos, in a lackadaisical tone to the busy housewife who replies with a matter-of-fact quack, like any prosaic barnyard duck. Until the last one of her bluish or olive gray eggs is laid, the mother plucks no down from her breast ; but she will continue to lay, and to cover the new eggs with her feathers, several times over if her nest is robbed, until her poor breast is naked and the drake’s down is called into requisition. According to Saunders the average yield of down from a nest in Iceland, where the birds are encouraged and protected by law, is about one-sixth of a pound. The gathering of these live feathers, as they are called, for no one thinks of killing this valuable bird or its allies to take their down which loses its elasticity after death, is an important industry in the northern countries of Europe ; but the industry is neglected and unintelligently managed on this side of the Atlantic. When all the eggs and down are taken from a nest repeatedly, the despairing birds abandon it for more re-mote parts, and never return; whereas hope eternally springs in a breast even where feathers do not, if an egg or two are left the mother. Audubon found large colonies of the American eider nesting in Labrador in April, and gathered some fresh eggs for food in May, when ice was still thick in the rivers. He found both ravens and the larger gulls prowling about the coast ready to suck the eggs and carry off the ducklings before they had mastered the art of diving out of harm’s reach.

While the females sit upon their nests the drakes withdraw for a thorough moult, which leaves them so bare of feathers in July that they are sometimes unable to fly. Henceforth they live apart, he in flocks of males, she with small companies of mothers with their broods, which latter are usually the flocks that visit us in winter, for the hardy old drakes do not often migrate so far south. By August ice has begun to form over their northern fishing grounds, and the flocks move a degree nearer us, flying swiftly and powerfully in a direct course, not far above the water, and almost never over land.