King Eider Fact File
Credit: Credit: Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Wild 18 years
Captive 18 years
One Highly Decorated Duck!
The king eider is named for the ornate pattern of feathers found on the head and the brightly colored beak which come together to resemble a crown.
These animals primarily hunt for crustaceans and molluscs and they are able to dive deep in to the sea to reach food. They may also take some small amounts of plant matter.
Females deposit their eggs in a small scrape on the tundra which may be lined with down and grass. Once chicks hatch they begin to gather their own food.
This species is threatened through hunting, by-catch in fisheries and poisoning.
Read on to learn more about these beautiful birds.
What does the King Eider look like?
During breeding season the male is recognizable for the large yellow frontal shield which is set at the front of the head. This is edged with black feathers. On the rest of the head they have gray plumage which continues down the neck. Their chest is pale white.
Males will moult to eclipse plumage during part of the year. During this time they are a darker shade of brown with the bill turning orangeish-yellow. On the back the feathers are white.
The female is a speckled brown color with pale feathers on the underside of the wings throughout the year.
The beak of the male is bright red during the breeding season.
An average king eider will measure 63cm (25in) long with a weight between 1.5 and 2kg (3.25 and 4.5lbs). They have a wingspan of 94cm (37in) across. Their weight is variable across the seasons, especially for females who eat little during the breeding season.
How does the King Eider survive in its habitat?
The king eider is covered by a thick layer of fluffy down feathers which sit under the tough, exterior feathers. The loose structures of these feathers are adapted to trap heat and keep them warm.
Their genus name, Somateria is taken from the Greek words sōma, or “body,” and erion, which means “wool.”
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What does the King Eider eat?
King eider are omnivores. They will feed on a range of crustaceans and molluscs. During nesting some individuals have been observed to feed on plant matter. At sea they may also make use of small amounts of plants.
They may dive to depths of up to 50m (164ft) to reach the ocean floor and their food sources.
Learn more about the King Eider in this video from One World One Ocean on YouTube
Where do you find the King Eider?
The king eider is found throughout the Arctic circle taking in parts of Europe, Asia and North America.
Resident populations can be found in the following countries – Canada; Denmark; Finland; Greenland; Iceland; Japan; Norway; Russia; Saint Pierre and Miquelon; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; Sweden and the United States.
They have been recorded as a vagrant species from the following countries – Belarus; Belgium; Czechia; France; Germany; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Kazakhstan; Latvia; Lithuania; Netherlands; Poland; Portugal; Spain and the United Kingdom.
Where can the King Eider survive?
These animals are found in areas of dry Arctic tundra. They make use of water courses including lakes, pools, bogs and streams. Most of the watercourses they inhabit are freshwater but they may use brackish water when feeding.
Credit: Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
How does the King Eider produce young?
Males will participate in a ritualized display in which he raises his rump, depresses the tail and pushes the head forward.
Pairs will nest individually. The female undertakes all of the incubation duties. If a threat is present she will sit low on the nest and lay her head on the ground.
The eggs are deposited in to a small scrape on the Arctic tundra. Often the pair will select a raised site for their nest. This may be lined with some down and grass. Between 3 and 7 eggs are laid at a time. These are colored pale olive.
During the incubation period she will rarely leave her nest. Incubation will last 22 to 24 days. One female did not leave the nest for 7 days while caring for the chicks.
From birth the young will feed themselves with food they gather. Females will often join their broods and several females will care for them together. Fledging takes place at 50 days old.
In to this nest they will deposit between 4 and 7 eggs which are colored olive-buff.
What does the King Eider do during its day?
These animals may dive as deep as 35m (115ft) in to the water while in pursuit of food. They may also forage in the shallows. This species is a successful swimmer.
Outside of the breeding season this species will spend most of its time at sea.
During moulting this species will gather in large flocks of up to 100,000 members.
Each year these birds undertake a migration. These birds travel in large numbers. At one point in Alaska over 360,000 were seen passing in just a 10 hour period. Often they will travel in mixed flocks with other species such as steller’s, common and spectacled Eiders, long-tailed ducks and murres.
While migrating they are active through the whole day including in darkness or through thick fog.
Their migration sees them move South during winter before returning to the north for summer.
Credit: Public Domain
Predators and Threats
What stops the King Eider from surviving and thriving?
Natural predators of the king eider include arctic foxes and birds such as gulls or skuas. These primarily target chicks and eggs.
Numbers of the king eider are declining. In total their population is estimated at between 800,000 and 900,000 individuals.
They are affected by poisoning through lead contamination, bycatch within fishery operations and the development of oil fields within their range.
Some are captured for use as food and also sport hunting.
An emerging threat is ocean acidification as a result of climate change.
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The king eider was first named for western science in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus.
Their name is taken from the intricate patterns on the head which resemble a crown.
The Spectabilis portion of their scientific name is taken from the Latin for "remarkable display" referring to the bright coloration of the male.
Credit: Public Domain
Ambrose, J., 2015. Wildlife Of The World. 1st ed. London: Dorling Kindersley
Alderton, D. and Barrett, P., 2019. The complete illustrated encyclopedia of birds of the world. Lorenz Books.
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Oceana. 2022. King Eider. [online] Available at: <https://oceana.org/marine-life/king-eider/> [Accessed 2 January 2022].
Alaska Sealife Center. 2022. King Eider – Alaska Sealife Center. [online] Available at: <https://www.alaskasealife.org/aslc_resident_species/18> [Accessed 2 January 2022].
British Waterfowl Association. 2022. King Eider – British Waterfowl Association. [online] Available at: <https://www.waterfowl.org.uk/wildfowl/true-ducks/king-eider/> [Accessed 2 January 2022].
Allaboutbirds.org. 2022. King Eider Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. [online] Available at: <https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/King_Eider/overview> [Accessed 2 January 2022].
BirdLife International. 2018. Somateria spectabilis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22680409A132526730. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22680409A132526730.en. Accessed on 03 January 2022.