Fall is a season of migration. As the first leaves start to become scarlet and evening temperatures fall, many creatures make preparations to move south – including human creatures. But, one of my favorite sea birds sticks around – the Common Eider, Somateria mollissima.

I take comfort in watching these chunky ducks bob up and down on the waves, knowing they will still be here when there is ice piling up along the shore. They are the biggest of the sea ducks, weighing 3-5 lbs. each. And, to me, their plumage is the most striking – the male drakes look as if they are dressed in black tie attire with their sharp white bodies and black wings.

Their camaraderie is also appealing – they nest in colonies of up to 10,000 or more. The mothers line their nests with that same wonderful fluffy Eider down that lines our nests in the wintertime.

Their independence is remarkable, too. The chicks leave the nest within a day of hatching and go straight to the water, already knowing how to dive and feed themselves. Imagine what it would be like being born knowing how to dive.

Every year, we follow a new crop of Eiders as they grow from chicks to teenagers over the summer. In May or so, groups called crèches float along the coast composed of fluffy newborn chicks and several moms. The females are a soft brown in color, in contrast with the black and white males, which helps them camouflage while they incubate their eggs. In these large groups, the multiple moms can successfully chase off predators.

One afternoon, we watched as a bald eagle harassed a crèche and was sure he would make off with one of the fuzzy ducklings, but the moms prevailed and squawked up a storm, eventually scaring him off. Despite these efforts, not many chicks survive the first few months of their lives. A good survival rate is only one duckling per breeding pair.

You might wonder where the dads are in all of this – they take off to find a source of ample food and few predators to molt over the summer, returning only when their chicks are already off on their own. Some parenting technique!

We root for the little chicks to make it through those first couple of critical months. As they get bigger, they develop mottled dark brownish black plumage much like their mothers so that they, too, can remain camouflaged as they continue to grow. They’ll start eating bigger prey, like crabs and shellfish, in addition to the smaller invertebrates they nibbled as newborns. They crunch up these critters in their gizzards. By the fall, they learn to fly and are mostly in the clear, as they are pretty big for most predators by then.

Some Eiders even live to be up to 20 years old. That’s truly an old duck.

Eiders weren’t always so numerous along our coast. They were nearly hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century. And, in the Arctic, populations are still low due to habitat loss. But numbers in North America have recovered significantly due in part to the 1916 Migratory Birds Convention, which led to an agreement between Canada and the United States limiting the hunting of migratory birds. While they are no longer hunted, their down is still collected to supply us with fluffy comforters and puffy jackets. Most of the Eider down we get is from farms in Iceland where the harvest is a multi-million dollar industry. But, it is also harvested in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in Nunavut farther north, and there is interest in Eider harvest in Newfoundland, as well.

That aside, we are happy to have such a healthy population in the Northeast to accompany our maritime adventures all year long.

Now that we are in September, we watch the teenagers eagerly dive beneath the surface, grabbing morsels of food from the sea floor and cheer that they have survived the summer. We watch them fly confidently over the water, ready to take on the incoming weather. They are a symbol of constancy and hardiness amidst all the changes that fall brings and I look forward to watching them all year long.

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