King Eider (Somateria spectabilis): Barry Kent MacKay

The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) is a favourite subject of mine. This approximately life-size painting shows two males in full breeding plumage and a female in front, swimming. While it is listed by the IUCN as a “species of least concern” of becoming endangered, and currently common, I fear the King Eider potentially will be at significant risk at some time in the future. My concern derives from the fact that the species breeds in the arctic and subarctic, and that is a region undergoing rapid transformation as a result of global climate change. They normally spend most of their lives along costal shorelines in the high latitudes of North America and Eurasia, moving inland to nest in tundra wetlands, which in turn depend on permafrost for their existence. The arctic permafrost is thawing at alarming rates, releasing methane, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

They are large ducks (about half a kilogram, or roughly two to three and a half pounds) hunted for food, in some places in the spring by indigenous peoples and in the fall, especially off North America’s east coast from Labrador south to the northeast U.S., as part of the Atlantic Flyway waterfowl hunt. But that is of minor concern compared to the potential for food loss from warming waters which may be far less supportive of the bottom (benthic) feeding invertebrates such as mollusks, crabs, sea urchins, and so on that are the King Eider’s main winter diet.  On their high latitude breeding grounds, they generally include fresh-water invertebrates.  But throughout the region there are risks from loss of sea ice facilitating transport of oil and other hazardous materials with the inevitable toxic spills, as well as increased competition from resource extraction industries, such as fishing. 

Female eiders line their nests, scraped into the ground, with their famously thick “eider down”, plucked from their own bodies, and forming dense, soft mats that can cover the eggs, of which there are usually from two to seven.  Eggs are clear-coloured, ranging from pale blue to light buff. It takes about three weeks for eggs to hatch, but once they do the hens troop their young to nearby water and there they often merge their respective broods. Mother ducks collectively care for the various broods with little concern over which ducklings belong to which parent. Males avoid family duties.

Males have a distinctive, brightly coloured knob at the base of the beak, covering the forehead. The innermost rear flight feathers, called the tertiaries, have an unusual curved upward point, like a horn.

The painting is in oils on compressed hardboard, 30 X 24 inches in size, and is approximately life size.  I also have included an acrylic painting on illustration board that I did decades ago, and later sold, of a female with young, and a painting in watercolours on paper showing a juvenile female King Eider, not yet old enough to fly.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info:

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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