The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)


This #BeakoftheWeek challenge allowed us to take a closer look at the king of the seaducks, the King Eider.

This is definitely in my top 5 favourite ducks, not least because it looks like Picasso got creative with its face in the design stage, and it is right up there on my “to see list”.

King Eiders taking flight

King Eiders taking flight

I have gone for a different approach with this blog entry, so that you can click on what you want to read about rather than having to scroll through to find what you are looking for. Hopefully it works a bit better!

The King Eider is from the anatidae family and is one of three members of the genus Somateria, which also includes the spectacled eider and common eider. The common eider is the duck that gives us eiderdown.   When the common eider nests it sheds feathers which are then collected and used to make some extremely comfortable pillows and duvets. If you fancy splashing out, a pillow alone can set you back around $3,000. I know, a bargain. Fortunately goose down pillows are available for far more reasonable prices.

You can check out what other species are closely related to the king eider on OneZoom.

  • As you can see from the range map below they are found exclusively in the Northern-hemisphere, breeding (Brown) around the Arctic coasts of Europe, Asia and North America and moving further south in the winter (Orange).

    King Eider Range

    King Eider Range

    This is a marine species, breeding on the edge of freshwater lakes, bogs, pools and small rivers, usually near to the coast. During the rest of the year it spends its time at sea, often in deep waters away from land (which can make accurately counting it rather tricky).

  • This sexually dimorphic large duck ranges in size from 47-63cm, with males being slightly bigger than females.  Males are unmistakable and the clear differences between the sexes can be seen in the video below.

    Males have a white breast and black rear half, crown and nape are pale blue, cheeks greenish and throat white. Their bill is orangey-red with a striking yellowy orange frontal shield. Females however are mostly rufous brown with cinnamon-brown head and neck and a grey beak. Males have dull orange legs whereas the females’ are greenish grey.  One of the things I love about this species is the dorsal fin-like feathers the males have on their back.

    If you are out birding, sight is not the only weapon in your armoury. Knowing what a species sounds like can be extremely helpful when trying to identify it, especially if they are just out of sight. For this purpose I have always found Xeno Canto to be a great resource.  Below is an example of some King Eider calls, more of which can be found on Xeno Canto.

  • King Eiders are seasonally monogamous, although males can mate with more than one female. Breeding starts between June and July with nests being scrapes in the ground (typically near water) lined with feathers (I bet that is one comfy nest) and plant material. Clutches of olive/olive-buff eggs (average 4-5 eggs) are incubated by the female alone and take around 22-24 days to hatch.  Typically only one brood is laid.  Chicks are precocial and are able to leave the nest soon after hatching, feeding themselves.

    Chicks fledge and become independent around 50-60 days after hatching and sexually mature after three years. Crèches, supervised by 1+ females, are sometimes formed by broods.

    Female King Eider

    Female King Eider

  • This species feeds predominantly by diving, often in groups, typically to depths of 25m but up to 55m (that is the height of the Tower of Pisa!). It does also feed in shallow waters through sieving and probing.  Its diet consists of crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, echinoderms and plant material. They do however partake in some fishing and here is a lovely picture of a male munching on a herring.

    Array of seabirds including the King Eider from the Birds of North America

    Array of seabirds including the King Eider from the Birds of North America


  • Although the number of King Eiders is in decline, due to the vast number of individuals of the species (~850,000), it is listed as “Of Least Concern” on the IUCN Redlist.

    King Eiders are predated by a number of species both as eggs and when they are young. These include: artic foxes, parasitic jaegers, the common raven and the glaucous gull.

    Arctic Fox

    Arctic Fox

    As eggs and young, king eiders have many predators, including: the glaucous gull; common raven; parasitic jaeger and Arctic fox. Pollution and hunting are also major problems for this species, with a quick Google image search for “king eider duck” producing many proud hunters with their catch.

  • The aim with this section is to provide some interesting links for you to check out if you are interested in learning about more about this species. This can come in many forms, from scientific journal articles to popular science blog articles or even just some cool videos that we have found.

    So far I have not found a great deal of extra reading on the King Eider so I thought I would go off on a tangent here and talk about the wonders of the Birds of America (by French naturalist and painter John James Audubon). The reason I take this tangent is because of the fantastic colour plate that you can see under the “Diet” tab.  This plate is not from the Birds of America but you can’t talk about the wonders of colour plates without going back to Audubon’s seminal work.

    The Birds of America was the fruit of Audubon’s desire to paint every single bird in America. It was printed in series between 1827 and 1838 and in total 435 plates were made. The plates featured now extinct species such as the passenger pigeon and the great auk as well as beautiful depictions of American flamingos, great horned owls and many other species.

    Audubon made the drawings from birds (dead of course) held in position with threads and wires and set in backgrounds of their natural habitats.  All of the birds were drawn, or engraved to be more accurate, life-sized, with Audubon contorting larger birds so that they would fit.


    Some of Audubon’s magnificent colour plates

    Audubon’s work is still a masterpiece to this day and the fact that 3 of the 10 most expensive books of all time are first editions of his work is testament to this. The most recently sold copy was bought in 2010 for more than £7million in London at Sotherby’s.

    I fully encourage you to log onto the audubon website where you can see the plates for yourself and read more about this fantastic piece of work.  There is also more information about each species in the book if you want to read up on them.

    To link it back to the original subject, the King Eider, you can follow this link to zoom in on Audubon’s take on them (no it isn’t my Ebay account).


BirdLife International. 2012. Somateria spectabilis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22680409A40146039. Downloaded on 03 February 2016.

Carboneras, C. & Kirwan, G.M. (2016). King Eider (Somateria spectabilis). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 2 February 2016).

Suydam, R. S. 2000. King Eider (Somateria spectabilis). In The Birds of North America, No. 491 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Images and Videos

Arctic Fox by A Neumann is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

Audubon’s Colour Plates by Johan Audubon is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Somateria spectabilis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-3

Female King Eider by Ómar Runólfsson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

King Eiders taking flight by Ron Knight is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

groenelantaarn. 2013. King Eiders. Online. 04/02/2016. Available from:

Seabird plate from Birds of North America is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Andrew Spencer, XC141727. Accessible at