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Surf Scoter Life History



Surf Scoters nest in some of the wildest parts of North America, in what’s known as the taiga shield ecotone in northern Canada and Alaska. Here, the boreal forest begins to blend with the tundra in a patchwork of wetlands, lakes, tundra, forests, shrublands, and meadows. On the abundant medium-sized (25-acre) shallow lakes here, Surf Scoters nest at wetland edges and rear their broods on lakes with few predators (avoiding the large fish found in deeper lakes), shelter from wind, and plentiful food for ducklings. Where lakes abound, a female and her brood might use several adjacent water bodies. During the remainder of the species’ life cycle, it is a bird of the ocean coasts, found usually in shallow waters close to land, although roosting flocks at night often move several miles offshore in good weather. Storms sometimes send flocks into sheltered bays and inlets in larger numbers, and bird watchers seeking migrants in the continent’s interior are most apt to find them during foul weather (rain with fog or low ceiling is ideal).

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Aquatic invertebrates

Along sea coasts, Surf Scoters prey on benthic invertebrates—creatures near or on the sea floor. Small mollusks, especially mussels and clams, form a large part of the diet, as well as marine snails, small crabs, sea squirts, hydrozoans (related to jellyfish), various marine worms, and (particularly in the Pacific) herring spawn. They also consume aquatic vegetation. During the breeding period, adults and ducklings eat freshwater invertebrates, including insects, and some plant matter.

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Nest Placement


Nests are usually well concealed on the ground beneath vegetation (tree branches, fallen trees) or rocky ledges, a short distance from a lake but generally well upland from marsh vegetation.

Nest Description

The female shapes a nest bowl and adds her own down feathers and plant matter such as mosses, grasses, needles, twigs, and bark from spruce and fir. Nests measured in Quebec averaged 12 inches across, with the interior of the bowl 6.7 inches across and 2.4 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:6-9 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.5-2.7 in (6.4-6.8 cm)
Egg Width:1.8-1.9 in (4.5-4.8 cm)
Incubation Period:28-30 days
Egg Description:

Creamy white.

Condition at Hatching:

Downy and eyes open. Leave nest soon after they dry. Feed themselves immediately.

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Surface Dive

Surf Scoters begin courtship and pairing in their wintering areas, near shore. The male swims back and forth with head erect (the “sentinel posture”), occasionally dipping the colorful bill in the water. He then faces a female, shaking his head, preening his breast and giving a gurgling call. He rears up out of the water with head back. Males also make short flights around the female, raising both head and wings vertically when landing near her. A female inclined to respond might perform a “chin-lift” display, in which she tilts her head upward and gives a raspy crowing call. The male responds in kind, also raising his tail and shaking his head, then turns away with his white nape patch raised. As with other ducks, many males may display to a female simultaneously. Migrating, molting, and wintering Surf Scoters form large flocks that can sometimes be heard for miles on calm days, as their wings produce pleasant whistling sounds.

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Low Concern

There is little information on Surf Scoter population trends. Partners In Flight estimates the global breeding population at 470,000 and gives the species a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating it is a species of low conservation concern. Surf Scoters are common, but populations may be declining owing to degradation of habitat, oil spills, and heavy metal or organochlorine pollution. Like other ducks, Surf Scoters are hunted. In the mid-2010s, a total of around 46,000 scoters (including Surf, Black, and White-winged) were taken by hunters each year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; studies in the 2000s indicated about 20,000 Surf Scoters were shot each year. Scientists expect that birds such as Surf Scoter that nest in the high latitudes will be severely impacted by global climate change in the near future, owing to seasonal mismatches in snowmelt and prey emergence.

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Anderson, Eric M., Rian D. Dickson, Erika K. Lok, Eric C. Palm, Jean-Pierre L. Savard, Daniel Bordage and Austin Reed. (2015). Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Bellrose, F. C. (1976). Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. Second edition. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. K. Fleming. (2018). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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