Latin name: Somateria mollissima
Length: 50-71cm Wingspan: 80-108cm
Where: Loch Long; Loch Goil
When: All year round
There are a number of things that make eiders special. For a start they are the UK’s heaviest duck. Big males can weigh in at over 6lb (2.9kg), almost twice as much as a mallard drake. Then they are the world’s fastest bird in level flight, reaching speeds of up to 47mph (76km/h). But for many they are special because they must count as one of our most striking and beautiful birds. Even from a distance the males look as smart as paint with their black and white plumage. But look closer, maybe through binoculars, and you will see that the nape of their necks is not white but actually a pale pistachio green, while their chests are flushed with a delicate, flamingo pink.
Though at first glance the females look drab and brown, close-up views reveal tortoiseshell colours and intricate patterns in their feathers – designed to help camouflage them while they sit on their shallow nests. Beneath the feathers on their breasts is soft, warm down, which they pluck to line their nests, keeping the eggs and young snug and warm. People have also used this down over the centuries for the same reason, gathering it after the nests are abandoned to stuff bed covers and pillows. We have never seriously farmed the birds in Scotland, but they do in Iceland.
You most often see eiders bobbing in rafts just offshore, where they dive for mussels and other crustaceans on the shallow seabed. If you see a female with a surprisingly large brood of chicks she may well be an ‘auntie’ – eider females share childcare duties by gathering their chicks in crèches to allow the other mothers to go off to feed.
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