Meditations on eiders

By Kristen Lindquist | Jul 07, 2010
Photo by: Brian Willson Eiders

Several summers ago my husband and I were dining at a fancy waterfront restaurant in Southern Maine when we heard the people at the next table ask our waiter what those black and white birds were floating offshore. "I think those are puffins," the young man replied. Later, much to my husband's embarrassment, I called the waiter over and asked him to please tell the people at the next table that the birds were common eiders, a kind of sea duck. They were politely grateful for the clarification, although I think they'd rather have gone on believing they had seen puffins, which rank right up there with moose as an icon of natural Maine.

The waiter was clearly "from away," because there aren't many who live near the coast for long without learning to recognize one of our most common sea ducks. The full adult male eider in breeding plumage is a handsome bird with black belly, white upper body, black cap, long, sloping gold bill, and a greenish wash on the face. Males that aren't yet full adults, or who are in non-breeding, eclipse plumage, display varied, motley combinations of black and white. (That black and white coloring is about the only thing it shares in common with the puffin.) The female eider is a beautiful warm brown, the better to camouflage her when she's on the nest. The striking plumage of the male combined with his bulky size -- the common eider's the largest duck in the United States, weighing in at up to 6 pounds -- certainly makes him noticeable, from sea-view restaurant windows, local beaches or a summer boat tour around an offshore island.

Here on Penobscot Bay we are fortunate to enjoy these ducks year-round. Many of the bay's uninhabited islands provide traditional nesting habitat, and breeding pairs are joined in fall and winter by migrants from farther north to form wide-spreading rafts of hundreds, even thousands, of ducks. Eiders are seasonally monogamous, although the pair doesn't usually stick together for a lifetime like geese do. However, if a hen finds her previous mate on their wintering grounds, they'll bond again for the following breeding season and fly back to the nesting grounds together. Then the male will guard her closely as she spends all her time eating in order to build up the reserves she'll need to spend a month sitting on the nest till their eggs hatch.

Eider nests, of course, are also protected by the infamous eiderdown, soft feathers the female plucks from her breast to line the nest and cover the eggs when she's away from them. The sustainable harvest of eiderdown from nests is still continued in Iceland, but here in the United States we've replaced it with goose down or synthetic fibers. A true eiderdown pillow or blanket would be a precious thing nowadays.

This time of year female eiders can be seen in offshore waters gathered with their downy young in communal groups called crèches. Females who didn't breed or whose nests failed, called "aunts," will join these groups as caretakers and overseers of the vulnerable ducklings. An eider duckling has to run a true gauntlet of predators to survive from egg to adult -- minks, foxes, night-herons, gulls (especially great-black backed), and eagles will all eat an egg or young eider when given the opportunity. So having more eyes to keep watch on the next generation seems to offer them the best chance of success.

Weather, too, can wreak havoc on an eider colony. Last summer's weeks of rain and low temperatures all but decimated Maine's eider nests. Observers who come upon crèches this year should find many more ducklings, along with their extended family of mothers, cradled by the rocking surf. Eiders began hatching in May in Casco Bay and in June here in Penobscot Bay, and by all accounts are flourishing right now.

Although the eider is commonly hunted in coastal Maine, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife monitors its population closely. In the early 19th century, thanks to over-hunting and egg collecting, only a few breeding eiders remained in Maine on the remotest islands -- in 1907, only two breeding pairs were observed. Stricter hunting regulations and the restoration of many seabird islands have helped bring the eider population back to healthy numbers, but the DIFW continues to conduct annual surveys to keep close track of how they're doing, including nest surveys on managed islands and winter flyover surveys of the big rafts that accumulate in Maine waters. While our summer population is currently up to 25,000 pairs, in the winter more than 150,000 eiders can be found bobbing together offshore.

A few years ago for the Christmas Bird Count we walked out on the Rockland Breakwater to count eiders and other sea ducks and were surprised not to see more than a handful of ducks bobbing in the waves. Usually significant rafts congregate off the end of the jetty. As we drew closer, we quickly realized those few ducks were decoys. And soon a small boat, complete with two hunters and a wet dog, pulled into view. We chatted with them as they drew near the rocks, laughing at our poor timing for trying to count ducks. They encouraged us to tally the three dead ducks lying in their boat. After all, they'd been alive earlier in our count day.

In one essay I read recently, a hunter from California described gunning for eiders in Down East Maine as "an uncommon experience ... the pinnacle of sea duck hunts." A poet friend of mine has even written a paean to hunting eiders with his father over Thanksgiving weekend. Although I've never hunted eiders, I do know what the Maine Coast is like in November and can only imagine that part of the thrill of hunting on the water that time of year comes from withstanding the elements -- bonding through adversity, as it were -- because eider meat, I've heard, is rather oily, not at all a treat.

Diet may play some part in its unpalatable taste. Like many of us, the eider enjoys mussels, which it picks off the ocean floor and swallows whole, as well as sea urchins, shrimp, crabs and other crustaceans. A good diet for a coastal Mainer, but I'm not sure the flavors translate well into the meat of a sea duck. Otherwise the waiter at that nice restaurant where my husband and I dined might have identified those eiders out the window -- they probably would have been featured on the menu as a wild local delicacy.

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