1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eider (duck)

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EIDER (Icelandic, Æður) , a large marine duck, the Somateria mollissima of ornithologists, famous for its down, which, from its extreme lightness and elasticity, is in great request for filling bed-coverlets. This bird generally frequents low rocky islets near the coast, and in Iceland and Norway has long been afforded every encouragement and protection, a fine being inflicted for killing it during the breeding-season, or even for firing a gun near its haunts, while artificial nesting-places are in many localities contrived for its further accommodation. From the care thus taken of it in those countries it has become exceedingly tame at its chief resorts, which are strictly regarded as property, and the taking of eggs or down from them, except by authorized persons, is severely punished by law. In appearance the eider is somewhat clumsy, though it flies fast and dives admirably. The female is of a dark reddish-brown colour barred with brownish-black. The adult male in spring is conspicuous by his pied plumage of velvet-black beneath, and white above: a patch of shining sea-green on his head is only seen on close inspection. This plumage he is considered not to acquire until his third year, being when young almost exactly like the female, and it is certain that the birds which have not attained their full dress remain in flocks by themselves without going to the breeding-stations. The nest is generally in some convenient corner among large stones, hollowed in the soil, and furnished with a few bits of dry grass, seaweed or heather. By the time that the full number of eggs (which rarely if ever exceeds five) is laid the down is added. Generally the eggs and down are taken at intervals of a few days by the owners of the “eiderfold,” and the birds are thus kept depositing both during the whole season; but some experience is needed to ensure the greatest profit from each commodity. Every duck is ultimately allowed to hatch an egg or two to keep up the stock, and the down of the last nest is gathered after the birds have left the spot. The story of the drake's furnishing down, after the duck's supply is exhausted is a fiction. He never goes near the nest. The eggs have a strong flavour, but are much relished by both Icelanders and Norwegians. In the Old World the eider breeds in suitable localities from Spitsbergen to the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland where it is known as St Cuthbert's duck. Its food consists of marine animals (molluscs and crustaceans), and hence the young are not easily reared in captivity. The eider of the New World differs somewhat, and has been described as a distinct species (S. dresseri). Though much diminished in numbers by persecution, it is still abundant on the coast of Newfoundland and thence northward. In Greenland also eiders are very plentiful, and it is supposed that three-fourths of the supply of down sent to Copenhagen comes from that country. The limits of the eider's northern range are not known, but the Arctic expedition of 1875 did not meet with it after leaving the Danish settlements, and its place was taken by an allied species, the king-duck (S. spectabilis) , a very beautiful bird which sometimes appears on the British coast. The female greatly resembles that of the eider, but the male has a black chevron on his chin and a bright orange prominence on his forehead, which last seems to have given the species its English name. On the west coast of North America the eider is represented by a species (S. v-nigrum) with a like chevron, but otherwise resembling the Atlantic bird. In the same waters two other fine species are also found (S. fischeri and S. stelleri), one of which (the latter) also inhabits the Arctic coast of Russia and East Finmark and has twice reached England. The Labrador duck (S. labradoria), now extinct, also belongs to this group. (A. N.)