Photo: Eric Reuter/Great Backyard Bird Count Participant

Surf Scoter

Melanitta perspicillata

This duck is common in winter on both coasts; on Pacific Coast, often seen around fishing piers and harbors. The male's strong head pattern earns the species the hunters' nickname of "skunk-head coot." When feeding, they usually spring forward and dive with the wings partly opened. Silent at most times of year.
Conservation status May have gone through a serious decline early in the 20th century, but now mostly stable or only slightly declining. Wintering concentrations are vulnerable to oil spills and other pollution.
Family Ducks and Geese
Habitat Ocean surf, salt bays, marinas; in summer, fresh Arctic lakes, tundra. Breeding habitat is near lakes and slow-moving rivers in far north, in sparsely forested or semi-open terrain, sometimes out on open tundra. In winter mostly on ocean in shallow bays or estuaries. Some may winter on Great Lakes, rarely on other bodies of fresh water.
This duck is common in winter on both coasts; on Pacific Coast, often seen around fishing piers and harbors. The male's strong head pattern earns the species the hunters' nickname of "skunk-head coot." When feeding, they usually spring forward and dive with the wings partly opened. Silent at most times of year.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • juvenile
  • adult female
  • adult male
  • adult male and female
Feeding Behavior

Forages by diving and swimming underwater, propelled mainly by the feet, with the wings usually half-opened.


Eggs

5-9, usually about 7. Pale buff. Incubation is by female only, incubation period not known. Young: Leave nest and go to water shortly after hatching. Young are tended by female, but feed themselves. Age of young at first flight not well known.


Young

Leave nest and go to water shortly after hatching. Young are tended by female, but feed themselves. Age of young at first flight not well known.

Diet

Mostly mollusks. In addition to mollusks, also feeds on crustaceans, aquatic insects, small fishes, echinoderms, marine worms. Also eats some plant material, mainly pondweeds and sedges. Young eat mostly aquatic insects at first, also mollusks and some plant material, including sedges, pondweeds, and crowberries.


Nesting

Pairs are formed on winter range. Several males may surround one female in courtship. Displays of male include swimming back and forth rapidly with neck stretched upward, exaggerated bowing, short display flights; males may pursue female underwater. Nest site is often some distance away from water, on ground, well hidden under low tree branches or in dense grass clump. Nest (built by female) is a shallow depression lined with down.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates in flocks. When migrating overland to coastal wintering areas, usually flies high. Stopovers on lakes inland apparently are mostly for resting, not for feeding.

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Migration

Migrates in flocks. When migrating overland to coastal wintering areas, usually flies high. Stopovers on lakes inland apparently are mostly for resting, not for feeding.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A low guttural croaking.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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