Not all of our mistakes are permanent. One duck came back from the brink. Not that long ago, the common eider was uncommon. As the largest duck in North America, it was hunted for its meat and eggs almost to extinction in the 19th century. We take eiders for granted now, but that was not always the case.
The Labrador duck shared the coast with eiders and generally ate the same crustaceans and mollusks. It disappeared completely in the late 1800s, about the time the eiders were also vanishing. It was probably not hunting but egg gathering that killed them off. The Labrador duck was never abundant, so extinction came quickly, even though it had one thing in its favor. Due to its diet, it tasted horrible. Since eiders prey on the same food, they have a similar reputation for being unpalatable, but a good cook can do wonders with sauces and bacon. Some eiders still end up on dinner plates today.
The Great Auk preceded the Labrador duck into history. The last two breeding auks were shot off the coast of Iceland on July 3, 1844. This member of the puffin family was flightless and proved an easy target for hunters. It also wasn’t particularly tasty, but frequently was used by fisherman for bait, and the eggs and feathers were easy pickings.
The common eider was on the way to sharing the same fate. Despite stricter laws enacted in the early 20th century, the eider population continued to dwindle. Credit for its recovery is often given to Allan Moses, a gifted taxidermist who traveled the world but made Grand Manan his home. One of his expeditions took him on the road with amateur ornithologist J. Sterling Rockefeller, an heir to the Rockefeller fortune. In 1930, Moses convinced Rockefeller to purchase nearby Kent Island, which was home to a large colony of nesting eiders. In 1936, Rockefeller sold the island to Bowdoin College for $1. Today, Bowdoin still owns the island and conducts extensive research there. A large collection of Moses’ stuffed birds was bequeathed to the Grand Manan Museum in 1953 and is still on display there.
The insulation qualities of eider down also helped save the duck. It is among the lightest and best insulators in the world, sewn into clothing, pillows and quilts. Eiders line their nests with this down, which is gathered by hand after nesting season, providing an incentive to preserve habitat and avoid nest disruption.
In the end, it’s too simplistic to say that man alone is responsible for the decline and recovery of the common eider. Populations vary over time, and we’ve reached a point where declines are occurring again in some places. These are likely to be due to natural predation as well as diminished food supply caused by pollution. The current population is considered stable in Maine.
Common eiders are circumpolar from Maine to Siberia. There are four distinct populations in North America. The subspecies found along the Maine coast is very similar to eiders found in the far north and in Hudson Bay, but eiders on the Pacific coast are noticeably different and may someday be reclassified as a separate species.
The eiders that breed along the Maine coast are largely non-migratory, but they are joined in winter by eiders from the frozen north. These eiders have been arriving in our waters for the last several weeks, accompanied by other sea ducks of the subarctic. I recall that the flocks of incoming eiders seemed much bigger 25 years ago.
The eider is a coveted bird for many visiting birders because most Americans don’t get to see them. I’m amused to watch eiders play tricks on these tourists. Adult male eiders are bright white and easy to identify, but it takes awhile for some visitors to realize that the large brown ducks are the females. Meanwhile, the juvenile males are an odd mix of white and black coloration, and they stay with their mothers when their dads go off to molt. In late summer, the males gather in single-sex flocks and move a little farther offshore. They are flightless at this time and the strategy puts some distance between them and predators. Furthermore, the separation prevents them from competing with their families for food, especially when the hens need to re-nourish after nesting. Shoreline birders in August often wonder where all the males went.
Enjoy the eiders this winter. They remind us that conservation does work.