The Eider Duck.
So a friend of mine said he saw one of these on the canal outside his apartment. For the record, I don’t believe him (mainly because it amuses me not to), but it did afford me the opportunity to write about it.
Everyone knows that the eider duck is most famous for its down, the soft feathers taken from the breast of the female eider duck. When “harvesting” eider down, it’s taken, not from the ducks themselves, but from their nests once the ducklings have left, with no harm done to the birds. Nowadays however, eider down has been largely replaced with synthetic alternatives and down from farmed geese.
The birds are sea-ducks and inhabit North America and Eastern Siberia and the coasts of northern Europe, wintering in more temperate climates. It’s therefore perfectly possible, and indeed quite probable, for my friend to have seen one in Edinburgh. Like I said though, it amuses me to disbelieve him.
The drakes are black and white and identified by their wedge-shaped head, giving them a very distinctive shape. The female ducks are a mottled brown, much like a female mallard, and have a less conical bill an head.
The down has been used form many centuries to fill quilts and pillows and it is very soft and very warm, and the whole skin of the duck has also been used to make clothing.
The interesting fact about this particular species, aside from the well-known warmth properties, it that they were the subject of possibly the first bird protection order in the world. In AD 676 a hermit who later became Saint Cuthbert protected a large breeding colony on Farne Island, Northumberland. The birds still flock there in their thousands every year, 1385 years later. It’s as if they hadn’t even noticed.