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Identifying King Eider and Common Eider

King Eider, adult male. June at Utqiagvik, Alaska. Photo by Brian E. Small
King Eider, adult male. June at Utqiagvik, Alaska. Photo by Brian E. Small

Of all the ducks that reach the far north, the one that best symbolizes the Arctic is the King Eider. This hardy duck breeds on tundra along some of the northernmost shorelines in the world, including Arctic Russia, the northernmost Canadian islands, and the north coast of Greenland. Even in winter, it’s a northern species; North American populations spend the winter mostly in southern Alaska and along the coast of eastern Canada. However, small numbers come as far south as our middle Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes in winter, and strays have appeared much farther south, so birders everywhere have reason to be aware of this species.

Many ducks show strong sexual dimorphism — that is, obvious visible differences between females and males: The females wear cryptic camouflage while the males show off with conspicuous bright colors. Eiders are extreme examples of this. The full adult male King Eider wears breeding plumage from late fall to early summer, and it’s an unbelievably gorgeous bird. However, females, young males, and adult males in the late summer “eclipse” plumage are subtler, requiring closer study.

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Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman is an expert birder and naturalist, a talented artist and photographer, a world traveler, and the author of many books about birds and other wildlife. His column “ID Tips” appears in every issue of BirdWatching. Kenn is also a field editor for Audubon Magazine and a contributor to Birds and Blooms. His work first appeared in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching) in April 1988. Visit his website, Kaufman Field Guides.

Kenn Kaufman on social media

Brian E. Small

Brian E. Small

Brian Small is a Los Angeles-based bird and nature photographer whose photos appear in the “ID Tips” column in every issue of BirdWatching. His work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications. His photos also illustrate many field guides, including Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, a series of state bird identification guides published with the American Birding Association, and his own Eastern and Western photographic field guides to the birds of North America published in 2009 with author Paul Sterry and Princeton University Press.

Brian E. Small on social media