King Eider

(Photo Gallery below)

The King Eider duck is named for his large blue-gray “crown” and his bright colors. King Eider Duck|Seward, Alaska We don’t usually include birds on our information sheets that we have not observed in the wild, however, we couldn’t resist in this case. We spotted these beautiful King Eiders in an exhibit at the Sea Center in Seward, Alaska.  Since the King Eider is most commonly found above the Arctic Circle, most birders don’t get a chance to see these unusual and colorful ducks!

Description

The King Eider is the largest sea duck in the northern hemisphere, measuring in at about 22”. The male has oblong-shaped head and a relatively small red-orange bill.  He has a large yellow-orange frontal shield which is outlined in black which forms an obvious knob on his forehead.  The crown of his head and the nape of his neck are gray-blue.  He has greenish cheeks outlined in black and he has a pinkish-white throat and chest.  The rest of his body, including his tail is black, except for white patches at the base of the tail and white wing patches.  He has two small black “sails” or upper wings that stick up from his back.  His legs and feet are dull orange.  In non-breeding or eclipse, he is brownish-black overall but retains the white patch on his upper wings.

The female King Eider is a warm rufous-brown color with black chevrons on her upper parts and flanks.  Both her head and neck are cinnamon-brown and finely streaked with black.  She has a pale buff-colored eye ring and a down-curving rear eye stripe.  She has a dark gape line at the base of her bill. Her bill is shorter and rounder than the Common Eider, and has less feathering along the bill.  Her wings are dark above with a thin white strip along the tips.  She has pale under parts.  Her legs and feet are greenish.

The juveniles are dull gray-brown with a light breast and a dark brown head; they have scaly patterns on their under parts with an upturned “grinning” look to their bills.  The young male begins to show white on his chest in late autumn.  The white varies as he becomes an adult and he becomes darker above.  Full plumage is completed at three years.

Range and Habitat

The King Eider is found the arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. You will find them in northern Alaska, northern Canada, on the coasts of northern Greenland, and arctic Russia. They are found along rocky coasts, inlets, and tundra pools. They are partial migrators and migrate in huge flocks in the spring.  The flocks sometimes consist of all males or all females. They spend most of the winters at sea in the Arctic Circle. Their plumage gives them protection against the cold.

Behavior

King Eiders are gregarious birds and gather to feed in the coastal waters, but they do not mix freely with other birds. They can be seen holding their bills horizontal to the surface of the water.  They eat mollusks, marine mussels, and sea cucumbers.  They sometimes dive in depths of up to 180 feet to find food on the sea bed. During breeding they feed on insects and crustaceans. They use their wings to “fly” under the water. The female has a higher pitched voice than the Common Eider.  She makes a sound like “gogogogo”.  The male makes crooning notes and chuckling noises.  King Eiders fly in a direct course and have rapid wing beats when they fly.  They can be seen flying abreast in long lines, instead of flying one behind each other.  They are best known for their downy feathers which were once used for making bedding, etc.

Breeding and Nesting

King Eiders breed from November to April. They form individual pairs before they arrive at the nesting areas. Unlike Common Eiders, which breed in colonies, they breed near fresh water tundra pools. In his dapper breeding costume, the male is ready for his breeding display.  First he shakes his head and tosses his bill vertically. Next, he entices the female with soft coos and moaning sounds.  Finally, he alternates the chin-lifting with neck stretching; he stretches his neck out to her, and then quickly returns his neck to a resting position.

After mating, the female scrapes a depression in a raised portion of ground near the water.  She lines her nest with plant matter and down feathers.  She lays 4-5 eggs in her nest.  At this point the male returns to sea. The female plucks her own abdominal feathers out for lining her nest.  She carefully covers her eggs with a thick layer of down when she goes out at night to find food.  Without this covering, the eggs would cool off and the developing chicks would die. The female incubates her eggs for 27-30 days and will tend to her young until they leave the nest and are able to find food on their own. Many females move to the sea before the chicks have fledged.

Photo Gallery – King Eider

Click to enlarge