King Eider Somateria spectabilis Scientific name definitions

Abby N. Powell and Robert S. Suydam
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020

Conservation and Management

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Common and locally abundant; difficulty of access to areas it frequents gives general idea that is less abundant than it really is, while well-censused breeding areas can show extreme inter-annual fluctuations in numbers, with occasionally none nesting at all Pattie 1990 deKorte et al. 1995.

Effects of Human Activity

Shooting And Trapping

Taken for subsistence by Alaskan Natives and Canadian aboriginals; small numbers taken by sport hunters. Hunting pressure on this species high at traditional migration posts, and was probably unsustainable in Greenland where 10–20% of winter population was hunted annually Kear 2005 (much reduced since late 1980s, with maximum annual bag c. 5560 in 1994–2000) Boertmann et al. 2004. From w. Arctic population, about 20,000 taken in nw. Canada and coastal Alaska, most during migration (Fabijan et al. 1997). Unknown number harvested in Russia. Harvest in e. North America relatively small, most in Greenland but also Newfoundland (Gilliland and Robertson 2009). Percentage of subpopulation migrating past Holman, Canada harvested during spring ranged from 3.7-6.9% (Byers and Dickson 2001). Level of harvest in 1990s (about 5% of population) probably sustainable based on population estimate at that time (Fabijan et al. 1997, Byers and Dickson 2001). Commercial harvest of King Eiders occurs during winter in sw. Greenland (Merkel 2004);10-20% of 114 King Eiders in this region had embedded lead shot present (Falk et al. 2006). In Alaska, 3 of 54 (6%) King Eiders collected in the late 1990s showed elevated lead concentrations (> 2 ppm wet weight) in liver, likely due to lead shot (Stout et al. 2002).

Pesticides And Other Contaminants/Toxics

Persistent organic compounds (including pesticides) in liver and kidneys of King Eiders low or not found (Stout et al. 2002).

Levels of heavy metals (Table 1) appear to be similar to those of other sea ducks (Nielsen and Dietz 1989, Dietz et al. 1990, Franson et al. 1995a, Henny et al. 1995, Kim et al. 1996, Savinov et al. 2003, Braune and Malone 2006a). Concentrations of total mercury, zinc, and copper were higher in livers of male King Eiders than females (Wayland et al. 2001). Cadmium concentrations were elevated in King Eiders in Canada; in East Bay levels were highest recorded in eiders (Wayland et al. 2001). No evidence that cadmium, selenium, or lead adversely affect annual survival of adult females or nesting effort at Karrak Lake, NU (Wayland et al. 2008a). Although cadmium, copper, and selenium concentrations shown in eiders are toxic to other waterfowl, these elements may be naturally enriched in their habitats and/or food resources (Stout et al. 2002, Wilson et al. 2004). Annual variation of cadmium and selenium of eiders nesting in central Canada is likely a function of their previous winter location: cadmium higher and selenium lower in birds believed to have wintered in the east (Wayland et al. 2007a,2008).

Differences in annual variation of metals may be correlated to individual dietary specialization (Wayland et al. 2007). Whole blood samples collected from adult King Eiders (8 females, 7 males) captured in Prudhoe Bay, AK, in 1996 found detectable levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, and selenium in patterns consistent with other studies in Alaska (Wilson et al. 2004).

Ingestion Of Plastics, Lead, Etc.

None reported.

Collisions With Stationary/Moving Structures Or Objects

Reported killed by flying into rigging of sailing ships in 1932 at St. Lawrence I., AK (Geist 1939). Current information suggests that these types of interactions between eiders and fishing and other vessels are not common (National Marine Fisheries Service, unpubl.). Collisions with power lines (and subsequent mortality) observed regularly, but not in high numbers, in n. Alaska (RSS).

Degradation Of Habitat

Little degradation of breeding habitat owing to human causes; few people inhabit regions where King Eiders breed. In n. Alaska, oil fields have been developed in areas where King Eiders nest, but no decline in numbers has been documented (Troy Ecological Research Associates 1993). Oil spills in molting areas, in wintering areas, or along migration routes are a serious concern because spills have the potential to affect or kill a large proportion of the population in a short period of time (Barry 1976, Alexander et al. 1997, Mosbech et al. 2007). A small oil spill on the Pribilof Is., AK, in 1996 killed an estimated 1,609 King Eiders (P. Flint, U.S. Geological Survey, pers. comm.). In w. Greenland, dredging for clams may have damaged bottom fauna and reduced numbers or redistributed molting King Eiders of e. Arctic population (Frimer 1993). Climate change may lead to thawing of permafrost under breeding areas, potentially draining small wetlands important for foraging during the breeding season.

Many at-sea areas are currently under consideration for offshore gas and oil exploration and development, particularly in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas (Fischer and Larned 2004, Oppel et al. 2009a, Dickson 2012a). King Eiders are vulnerable to oil spills due to large flock sizes, distance from shore, and use of moderate-ice areas. Modeling a hypothetical oil spill on a primary staging area that would kill 1000-5000 breeding-age females showed that the population of King Eiders breeding in n. Alaska would decline to 1500-3500 females in 50 years (Bentzen and Powell 2012).

N Pacific populations of King Eiders (and other seaducks) have been shown to be highly susceptible, for short periods, to broad-scale oceanic regime changes, which affect both biological and climatic variables; however, it is presently unknown how these changes negatively impact bird populations, either through reduced survival chances or reproductive failure Flint 2013. At least in past, susceptible to extreme climatic events, with reported mortality of 100,000 birds when Beaufort Sea re-froze in spring of 1964 Newton 2007.

Disturbance At Nest And Roost Sites

Little human activity in nesting areas; however in n. Alaska many nest within the oil fields and highest densities are within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is open for oil and gas leasing and exploration. See above for impacts on molting areas in w. Greenland.

Direct Human/Research Impacts

Researchers have caused abandonment of nests by handling females early in incubation (Palmer 1976). In Nunavut, 36 out of 1210 nests monitored from 1995-2001 were abandoned after capture of the incubating hen (Kellett et al. 2003). In Alaska, daily nest survival was lower after researchers visited (Bentzen et al. 2008a). Molting King Eiders react dramatically to the sound of a distant airplane or boat; cease feeding, swim offshore in alert posture, and dive; majority of birds do not return to feeding areas for 6–8 h after such a disturbance (Frimer 1994b, Mosbech and Boertmann 1999).


Conservation Status

Not Threatened or Endangered, but there is concern, given recent evidence of population decline (see Demography and Populations: Population Status, above).

Measures Proposed And Taken

None proposed or taken for this species.

Recommended Citation

Powell, A. N. and R. S. Suydam (2020). King Eider (Somateria spectabilis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.kineid.01