The king eider has a circumpolar distribution that is more northerly than the other eider species, and is both a little bit smaller and more compact than the common eider. The species breeds in high arctic regions of Asia, North America, Greenland and in Svalbard. Its typical habitat is tundra plains with small ponds; it is not generally associated with islets and the coast like the common eider.
The king eider is a little bit smaller than the common eider; it is 47–63 cm long and weighs 1.2–2.1 kg.
The male has characteristic, colourful plumage with a pale, blue-grey head, light-green cheeks, a pink breast and a black back and under-parts. When the wings are folded, the white feathers of the wing coverts form a white stripe from the breast along the sides of the body. Male king eiders also have a large orange shield on the forehead. The bill is orange-red. In transitional plumage after the breeding season it is mostly dark-brown and black.
The male king eider is one of Svalbard’s most colourful birds. The female is very similar to the common eider female, though the profile of the head is somewhat rounder and the plumage is a more reddish-brown. Juvenile birds of both sexes are similar in colouration to the adult females.
The male voice is a dove-like cooing, while the female makes a deep ‘gook-gook-gook’ call.
The king eider has a circumpolar distribution that is more northerly than the other eider species. The species breeds in high arctic regions of Asia, North America, and Greenland as well as Svalbard (Norway). King eiders occupy only high arctic tundra regions during the breeding season.
In Svalbard, they can be found scattered along the west coast of Spitsbergen, but the most important breeding areas are from Bellsund to Prins Karls Forland (Nordenskiöldkysten, Daudmannsøyra, Forlandssletta) and on Reinsdyrflya in north-western Spitsbergen. Migrating flocks have been observed flying south along the east coast of Spitsbergen in autumn, and it is possible that there are unknown breeding areas in the northern and eastern parts of the archipelago. Svalbard birds probably spend the winter at sea around Spitsbergenbanken, midway between Bjørnøya and Spitsbergen.
King eiders from east Greenland are known to moult west of Spitsbergen and at sea in shallow areas between Bjørnøya and Spitsbergen.
Little is known about the ecology and the population status of the king eider in Svalbard. Its typical habitat is tundra plains with small ponds; it is not generally associated with islets or coastal area like the common eider. However, in the rearing period after hatching and during moulting period this species appears in groups along the coast. Important moulting areas are located in shallow near-shore waters off the west and south coasts of Spitsbergen.
King eiders are most often seen in pairs or in small groups during the breeding season, but larger flocks form during the remainder of the year. In Svalbard moulting flocks can number in the thousands of birds.
King eiders feed on various bottom-living animals such as molluscs, crustaceans and sea cucumbers. During winter king eiders inhabit marine habitats exclusively and feed in deeper water (20–40 metres) than other sea ducks.
Life history and reproduction
Unlike the common eider, the king eider does not nest in colonies. It arrives at the nesting site soon after the snow clears, normally somewhat later than the common eider which nests on islets that become snow free earlier. The nest is usually placed near freshwater ponds and lakes. It consists of a shallow depression in the ground lined with down which is darker than that of the common eider.
The four to six eggs are a pale olive-brown, similar to those of the common eider, though they are a little bit smaller. The eggs are incubated by the female for 22-24 days; the male leaves the nesting site some days after the start of incubation. After hatching the female and young initially remain near freshwater, where they feed on aquatic animals.
Several females with their broods usually assemble to form larger groups. Many broods move to the sea before the chicks have fledged.
The highest age recorded in Norway (including Svalbard) is 15 years.
Management status and monitoring
The total autumn population in Svalbard has been estimated to be 2,500–5,000 individuals. The current population trend is not known. The European breeding population is estimated to be approximately 46,000 breeding pairs.
The resemblance between female king eiders and female common eiders, combined with the dispersed breeding pattern, makes the king eider a difficult species to census on the breeding grounds. It is a relatively timid bird that is only rarely observed at close range.
During the moulting season they occur in dense groups along coast lines and are susceptible to oil pollution and disturbance in some parts of their range during this period.