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king eider

Somateria spectabilis

What do they look like?

King eiders are sea ducks known for their ornate plumage. Males during the breeding season (late autumn through mid-summer) have reddish-orange bills and yellow lobes on their face that are rimmed with black. The crown, nape and eyebrows are light grayish blue, the cheeks and iridescent pale green, the mantle, breast and shoulders are white, and most of the body is black. There are two vertical, triangular “sails” on the back, formed by long extensions of the black wing feathers. The feet are yellow with blackish nails. At other times of the year, male king eiders are mostly brown, similar to females except for the white patch on the forewing and rump. Throughout the year, female king eiders are mostly reddish-brown, with the sides being dark brown or black, and a scalloped pattern on the breast and belly. The bill is olive or yellowish gray. King eiders are large and males are larger than females, from 1,200 to 2,100 g. Body length is from 46 to 64 cm and wingspan is from 89 to 102 cm. ("Late summer migration at Barrow, Alaska", 1976; Frimer, 1997; Mallory, et al., 2001; Palmer, 1976; Suydam, 2000; Thompson and Person, 1963)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    1200 to 2100 g
    42.29 to 74.01 oz
  • Average mass
    1618 g
    57.02 oz
  • Range length
    46 to 64 cm
    18.11 to 25.20 in
  • Range wingspan
    89 to 102 cm
    35.04 to 40.16 in

Where do they live?

King eiders are found in coastal regions of the northern hemisphere. They are predominantly found in North America and eastern Russia but also in Scandinavia. This is a migratory species that breeds in the northern latitudes of its distribution, nesting along the coast of the Arctic Ocean from northeastern Russia and Alaska to the islands of the Northwest and Nunavut Territories of Canada, as well as the west shore of Hudson Bay and portions of Greenland. ("Seasonal Movement of King Eiders Breeding in Western Arctic Canada and Northern Alaska", 2012; Bustnes and Lonne, 1997; Suydam, 2000)

What kind of habitat do they need?

King eiders are restricted to waters free of ice. Their relatives, common eiders and spectacled eiders, can live in areas with up to 75% ice cover on the water. In the winter, king eiders are found in shallow, near shore coastal areas, usually within 11 km from the shoreline. In summer, breeding season, king eiders build nests on islands or coastal tundra areas with willow cover. Their nests are near water so that they can forage and travel to the water with their young after they hatch. (Bustnes and Lonne, 1997; Phillips, 2005; Phillips, et al., 2006)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • coastal
  • Range depth
    40.0 (high) m
    131.23 (high) ft
  • Average depth
    19.3 m
    63.32 ft

How do they reproduce?

Kings eiders form seasonal bonds. Males display their ornate plumage in many ways (see Communication and Perception). Females respond with preening, wing-flapping, and repeatedly dipping their bills into the water. When ready to mate, males swim around a female performing various courtship displays.

King eiders breed once each year, arriving on the breeding ground in mid-June. Female king eiders return to an area within 4 km from the previous year's nest site. Female king eiders raise their young on their own. To prepare for that effort, they spend more than seven hours per day feeding, three times the amount that males spend feeding. King eider nests are usually 25 cm in diameter and are constructed by females by leaning forward on her breast and kicking debris with her feet to dig a shallow depression. Vegetation and downy feathers are added to the nest as the clutch nears completion. King eiders lay from 1 to 16 eggs during mid-June to early-July. Early in the incubation period, males leave the females to raise their offspring. (Bentzen, et al., 2009; Kellett and Alisauskas, 1997; Lamothe, 1973; Oppel, et al., 2011; Suydam, 2000)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    King eiders breed once yearly during early-June.
  • Breeding season
    Courting and copulation occur prior to or during spring migration to breeding grounds in late-May and early-June. Nesting occurs once pairs arrive and snow and ice have melted, usually in early-June.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 16
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    22 to 24 days
  • Average fledging age
    24 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 3 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

Larger female king eiders lay eggs that hatch into larger ducklings, which have a higher survival rate. Soon after their young hatch, female king eiders may move their brood away from nesting areas, about 2.0 km over land, to more favorable habitats, such as inland tundra ponds. King eider ducklings are precocial and feed without assistance after hatching. (Anderson and Alisauskas, 2001; Lamothe, 1973; Mehl, et al., 2007)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • female

How long do they live?

About 67% of hatchling king eiders survive their first year. About 94% of adults survive each year. The longest living king eider known was nearly 19 years old, however, the oldest common eider (S. mollissima) was over 21 years old, indicating that king eiders may be able to live longer. (Clapp, et al., 1982; Klimkiewicz and Futcher, 1989; Mehl, et al., 2007; Oppel and Powell, 2010; Phillips and Powell, 2009; Sittler, et al., 2000; Suydam, 2000)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    18 (high) years

How do they behave?

King eiders are sea ducks found swimming and diving using their large webbed feet, though they are capable of walking and running on land and ice. Like most ducks, king eiders fly quickly and are found in large flocks of up to 10,000 individuals or more during migrations, including many individuals of other species. During the year, they are found in smaller flocks of less than 100 individuals. Spring migrations generally start in May and fall migration starts in November and December. King eiders are active during the day, which means that they are active nearly 24 hours each day during the Arctic summer. King eiders are well known divers and forage on the sea floor at depths between 15 and 25 m. King eiders are highly social, except during the breeding season, when aggressive males keep other males away. ("Late summer migration at Barrow, Alaska", 1976; Bustnes and Lonne, 1997; Lamothe, 1973; Suydam, 2000; "Late summer migration at Barrow, Alaska", 1976; Bustnes and Lonne, 1997; Lamothe, 1973; Suydam, 2000)

Home Range

King eiders are a gregarious species and do not maintain a territory. The winter range of western North American population of king eiders are approximately 6905 km2 and individuals are known to travel between wintering sites leading to the extreme size of range. (Oppel, et al., 2008; Suydam, 2000)

How do they communicate with each other?

Male and female king eiders perform a wide variety of vocalizations. Males perform a wavering hooooo and may kwack if threatened. Females are known for various croaks, grunts, and kwacks. Wings of king eiders whistle in flight and observers may hear “clapping” as a flock of eiders pass. During breeding, male king eiders display their plumage and perform several threat displays to other males in order to mate with females. (Palmer, 1976; Suydam, 2000)

What do they eat?

Analyses of king eider stomachs show that mollusks make up the majority of their diet, followed by crustaceans, echinoderms, annelid worms, and fish. Female king eiders, while nesting, are omnivorous and feed on vegetation and terrestrial invertebrates to prevent excessive loss of body reserves. King eiders forage at depths of 15 to 25 m, but may dive deeper, foraging for greater than 90 seconds at a time and consume their prey before surfacing. They prefer cobble or hard bottoms and rely on their eyesight to locate prey.

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • echinoderms
  • cnidarians
  • other marine invertebrates
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • algae

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Nest predation on king eiders may account for 66% of failed nests. Nesting on islands reduces cases of nest predation. King eider ducklings are most heavily preyed on by glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), herring gulls (Larus argentatus), and jaegers (Stercorarius species). Adult king eiders may be preyed on while they are molting, which makes it impossible for them to fly. (Anderson and Alisauskas, 2001; Frimer, 1995; Kellett and Alisauskas, 1997; Lamothe, 1973; Mehl, et al., 2007; Phillips, 2005; Anderson and Alisauskas, 2001; Frimer, 1995; Kellett and Alisauskas, 1997; Lamothe, 1973; Mehl, et al., 2007; Phillips, 2005)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

King eiders are preyed on by predators such as Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), herring gulls (L. argentatus), jaegers (Stercorarius species), snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus). (Anderson and Alisauskas, 2001; Kellett and Alisauskas, 1997; Kellett, et al., 2003; Lamothe, 1973; Mehl, et al., 2007; Sittler, et al., 2000)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • Cestoda
  • Fimbriarioides intermedia
  • Hymenolepis arctica
  • Hymenolepis fallax
  • Hymenolepis microstoma
  • Lateriporus teres
  • Plymorphus botulus

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse affects of king eiders on humans.

How do they interact with us?

As a Holarctic species, king eiders interact little with humans, thus providing few benefits besides subsistence hunting.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • food

Are they endangered?

King eiders have been determined to be biologically vulnerable. Analysis of migrating king eiders past Barrow Point suggest that migratory populations in the Beaufort Sea declined by 56% from 1976 to 1996. Other indices have shown an increased population. Oil and gas development in the Arctic may threaten important nesting habitat. Additionally, king eiders are disturbed by boat traffic, causing stress to molting birds, and there seems to be corresponding shift in suitable molting areas since the 1950’s as a result of increased traffic. King eiders are susceptible to oil spills. Concentrations of lead, mercury, and barium levels are high in eider species, which is thought to be due largely to contamination in their breeding grounds. ("Alaska Species Ranking System Summary Report -King Eider", 2002; Mosbech and Boertmann, 1999; Suydam, et al., 2000; Wilson, et al., 2009)

Some more information...

Much of what is known about king eiders is from studies of the North American populations. Knowledge of European and Russian populations is lacking, as is information on the impact of climate change on these Arctic birds. Hybridization of king and common eiders has been documented occasionally. (Palmer, 1976; Suydam, 2000)


Caleb Eckloff (author), Northern Michigan University, Alec Lindsay (editor), Northern Michigan University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Alaska Natural Heritage Program. Alaska Species Ranking System Summary Report -King Eider. Anchorage, AK: University of Alaska Anchorage. 2002.

Timson, R.S. Bureau of Land Management and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Late summer migration at Barrow, Alaska. Vol. 1. Boulder, CO: Environmental assessment of the Alaskan Continental Shelf. 1976.

Dickson, D.L. Canadian Wildlife Service. Seasonal Movement of King Eiders Breeding in Western Arctic Canada and Northern Alaska. Canadian Wildlife Service Technical Report Series Number 520. Edmonton, Alberta: Canadian Wildlife Service. 2012.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game: Division of Subsistence. The subsistence harvest of Black Brant, Emperor Geese, and Eider Ducks in Alasak. 234. Juneau, AL: Alaska Department of Fish and Game: Division of Subsistence. 2002.

American Ornithologists' Union, 1998. Check-list of North American Birds. Washington D.C.: American Ornithologists' Union.

Anderson, V., R. Alisauskas. 2001. Egg size, body size, locomotion, and feeding performance in captive King Eider ducklings. The Condor, 103(1): 195-199.

Bentzen, R., A. Powell, R. Suydam. 2009. Strategies for Nest-site selection by King Eiders. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 73(6): 932-938.

Bustnes, J., O. Lonne. 1997. Habitat partitioning among sympatric wintering Common Eiders Somateria mollissima and King Eiders Somateria Spectabilis. Ibis, 139(3): 549-554.

Byers, T., D. Dickson. 2001. Spring migration and subsistence hunting of King and Common Eiders at Holman, Northwest Territories, 1996-97. Arctic, 54(2): 122-134.

Clapp, R., M. Klimkiewicz, J. Kennard. 1982. Longevity records of North American Birds: Gaviidae through Alcidae. Journal of Field Ornithology, 53(2): 81-124.

Cramp, S., K. Simmons. 1977. The birds of the western Paleoarctic. Volume 1. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Drury, W. 1961. Observations on some breeding water bird on Bylot Island. Canadian Field-Naturalist, 75: 84-101.

Falk, K., F. Merkel, K. Kampp, S. Jamieson. 2006. Embedded lead shot and infliction rates in common eiders Somateria mollissima and king eiders S. spectabillis wintering in southwest Greenland. Wildlife Biology, 12(3): 257-265.

Frimer, O. 1995b. Adaptations by the king eider (Somateria spectibilis) to its moulting habitat: Review of study at Disko, West Greenland.. Dansk Ornithologisk Forenings Tidsskrift, 89: 135-142.

Frimer, O. 1995. Comparative behavior of sympatric moulting populations of common eider (Somateria mollissima) and king eider (Somateria spectabilis) in central West Greenland. Wildfowl, 46: 129-139.

Frimer, O. 1997. Diet of moulting King Eiders Somateria spectabilis at Disko Island, west Greenland. Ornis Pennica, 74: 187-194.

Johnsgard, P. 1964. Comparative behavior and relationships of the Eiders. The Condor, 66(2): 113-129.

Kellett, D., R. Alisauskas. 1997. Breeding biology of King Eiders nesting on Karrak Lake, Northwest Territories. Arctic, 50(1): 47-54.

Kellett, D., R. Alisauskas, K. Mehl. 2003. Nest-site selection, interspecific associations, and nest success of King Eiders. The Condor, 105(2): 373-378.

Klimkiewicz, M., A. Futcher. 1989. Longevity records of North American birds supplement 1. Journal of Field Ornithology, 60(4): 469-494.

Lamothe, P. 1973. Biology of the king eider (Somateria spectabilis) in a freshwater breeding area on Bathurst, Island, N.W.T. Thesis. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: University of Alberta.

Mallory, M., H. Gilchrist, S. Jamieson, G. Robertson, D. Campbell. 2001. Unusual migration mortality of King Eiders in Central Baffin Island. Waterbirds: The International Journal of Waterbird Biology, 24(3): 453-456.

Mauser, D., R. Jarvis, D. Gilmer. 1994. Survival of radio-marked mallard ducklings in northeastern California. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 58(1): 82-87.

McDougall, P., H. Milne. 1978. The anti-predator function of defecation of their own eggs by female Eiders. Wildfowl, 29: 55-59.

Mehl, K., R. Alisauskas, A. Buerger. 2007. King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) Brood Ecology: Correlates of Duckling Survival (Écologie d'élevage des couvées de Somateria spectabilis: Corrélations avec la survie des canetons). The Auk, 124(2): 606-618.

Merkel, F., A. Mosbech, S. Jamieson, K. Falk. 2007. The diet of king eiders wintering in Nuuk, Southwest Greenland, with reference to sympatric wintering common eiders. Polar Biology, 30(12): 1593-1597.

Miller, E., J. Williams, S. Jamieson, H. Gilchrist, M. Mallory. 2007. Allometry, bilateral asymmetry and sexual differences in the vocal tract of common eiders Somateria mollissima and king eiders S. spectabilis. Journal of Avian Biology, 38(2): 224-233.

Mosbech, A., D. Boertmann. 1999. Abundance and Reaction to Aerial Surveys of Post-breeding King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis) in Western Greenland. Arctic, 52(2): 188-203.

Oppel, S., A. Powell. 2010. Age-specific survival estimates of King Eiders derived from satellite telemetry (Estimados de la Supervivencia Específicos de la Edad Derivados Mediante Telemetría Satelital en Somateria spectabilis). The Condor, 112(2): 323-330.

Oppel, S., A. Powell, M. Butler. 2011. King Eider foraging effort during the pre-breeding period in Alaska. The Condor, 113(1): 52-60.

Oppel, S., A. Powell, L. Dickson. 2008. Timing and Distance of King Eider Migration and Winter Movements (Fenología y Distancia de la Migración y Movimientos Invernales de Somateria spectabilis). The Condor, 110(2): 296-305.

Ouellet, J., C. Vanpe´, M. Guillemette. 2013. The body size-dependent diet composition of North American sea ducks in winter. PLoS One, 8(6). Accessed January 15, 2014 at

Palmer, R. 1976. Handbook of North American birds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Phillips, L. 2005. "Migration ecology and distribution of King Eiders a Thesis" (On-line). Accessed January 18, 2015 at

Phillips, L., A. Powell. 2009. Brood rearing ecology of King Eiders on the North Slope of Alaska. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 121(2): 430-434.

Phillips, L., A. Powell, E. Rexstad. 2006. Large-scale movements and habitat characteristics of King Eiders throughout the nonbreeding period. The Condor, 108(4): 887-900.

Schiller, E. 1955. Studies on the helminth fauna of Alaska. XXIII. Some Cestode parasites of eider ducks. The Journal of Parasitology, 41(1): 79-88.

Sittler, B., O. Gilg, T. Berg. 2000. Low abundance of King eider nests during low lemming years in northeast Greenland. Arctic, 53(1): 53-60.

Suydam, R. 2000. King eider: Somateria spectabilis. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc..

Suydam, R., D. Dickson, J. Fadely, L. Quakenbush. 2000. Population declines of King and Common Eiders of the Beaufort Sea. The Condor, 102(1): 219-222.

Thompson, D., R. Person. 1963. The Eider Pass at Point Barrow, Alaska. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 27(3): 348-356.

VanCleave, H. 1951. The Ancanthocephalan parasites of eider ducks. Helminthological Society, 18(1): 81-84.

Wilson, H., M. Petersen, D. Troy. 2009. Concentrations of metals and trace elements in blood of spectacled and king eiders in northern Alaska, USA. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 23(2): 408-414.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Eckloff, C. 2015. "Somateria spectabilis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 18, 2024 at

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