FWS Focus

Overview

Characteristics
Overview

Steller's eiders (Polysticta stelleri) are Arctic breeding seaducks that are the smallest and rarest of the four eider species. They are in a separate genus from the other three eiders. The Iñupiaq name for the species is Igniqauqtuq, which translates to “bird who sat in the fire,” due to the toasted orange/brown color of the breast of the male.

Most of the world’s Steller’s eiders nest in remote areas of Arctic Russia and winter in waters adjacent to the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. Smaller populations also exist in Europe, as well as a small breeding population on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska, and historically on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The Alaska-breeding population was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997, due to concerns over apparent declines in numbers inferred from a reduction of nesting range in western Alaska. As the Steller’s eider breeds in low numbers and winters in remote areas it is a challenging species to study.

Scientific Name

Polysticta stelleri
Common Name
Steller's Eider
FWS Category
Birds
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics
Habitat

Breeding habitat for the Alaska population is closely associated with the polygonal tundra pond environment of the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska, with the highest concentration near Utqiagvik. Past breeding has also occurred in coastal wetland areas of the Yukon-Kuksokwim Delta, where nesting is now rare. Molting and wintering areas are typically shallow, near-shore waters of southwest and southcentral Alaska, where the birds mix with other Steller’s eiders that breed in Russia. Steller’s eiders often congregate in lagoons with eelgrass beds present where foraging takes place on associated invertebrates.

Marine

Having to do with water

Tundra

Cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.

Coastal
Wetland
Characteristic category

Life Cycle

Characteristics
Life Cycle

The incubation period for Steller's eiders is about 24 days from the last egg laid. The young are precocial and typically depart the nest within 24 hours of hatching. Ducklings are fully capable of walking and swimming from the time they leave the nest but are not fully fledged until about 49 days of age. Steller’s eiders undergo a fall flightless molt in shallow nearshore waters in southwest Alaska. Females reach reproductive age at 2 to 3 years of age.

Life Span

Steller's eiders are a long-lived sea duck species. The oldest recorded individual in the wild according to banding records was a female that was at least 23 years old.

Reproduction

Males and females form pair bonds during the winter and arrive on the tundra breeding grounds paired. Breeding habitat is typically northern coastal open polygonal tundra in Russia and Alaska. Courtship displays and mating take place as the snow disappears on the tundra and ponds. The female forms a nest bowl on the tundra or short willows and lines it with dark down. Nests are typically near shallow ponds surrounded by grasses or sedges. Clutch size is typically 5 to 8 eggs, and incubation takes place only by the female. Males begin to disperse from breeding areas during incubation and the hen alone raises the ducklings.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics
Food

Steller’s eiders forage in tundra ponds during the breeding season, feeding on invertebrates like midge and caddisfly larvae. Food consumption during the non-breeding season consists of invertebrates like mussels, clams and crustaceans. Foraging in molting and wintering areas is often associated with eelgrass beds that support a diverse array of marine invertebrates that are consumed.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics
Size & Shape

Steller’s eiders are small sea ducks that in flight often fly in tight groups. They have a relatively small head and flat crown, short body, relatively narrow wings and an elongated, pointed tail.

MeasurementsLength: 16.9 to 18.1 inches (43 to 46 centimeters)Wing length: 80.3 to 89.4 inches (204 to 227 centimeters)

Weight

Steller’s eiders are the smallest of the four eider species and males and females are very similar.

MeasurementsAverage mass of adult males at Utqiagvik, Alaska: 31 ounces (887 grams)Average mass of adult females at Utqiagvik, Alaska: 30 ounces (852 grams)

Color & Pattern

In the winter, spring and early summer, adult males are in breeding plumage with a black back, white shoulders, chestnut breast and belly, a white head with a greenish tuft and small black eye patches. During the late summer and fall, males are entirely mottled dark brown. Females and juveniles are mottled dark brown year-round. Adults of both sexes have a blue patch with a white border on the upper wing, similar to mallards.

Sound

Not overly vocal, Steller’s eiders make soft guttural croaking and clucking sounds, particularly on the breeding grounds.

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics
Behavior

Steller’s eiders arrive on the breeding grounds paired up and often gather in small groups on open ponds. Once breeding activity begins to occur, pairs, but particularly the males of breeding pairs, will fight off others in close proximity and often rush at each other in water or running on land. Males in courtship behavior dip and raise their heads and maintain close proximity to the female. If startled, the pair may take flight, but often return shortly to the same pond. Steller’s eiders can walk quickly on land with a slight waddle. Males will stay on the breeding grounds part way into incubation, before breaking the pair bond to depart to the ocean. If disturbed, nesting females quickly return to the nest area. Nesting locations sometimes associated with pomarine jaegers (Stercorarius pomarinus), who aggressively defend their own nests. During the non-breeding season, Steller’s eiders may gather in the thousands in molting and wintering areas offshore in southwest Alaska.

Geography

Characteristics
Range

Most of the world’s Steller’s eiders nest in Arctic Russia, as well as a small breeding population on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska and historically on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where nesting is now rare. The Alaska population is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and in North America, is a rare occurrence outside of Alaska.

In Alaska, arrival to breeding grounds takes place in late May to early June. Males typically spend about a month on the breeding grounds and depart during incubation. Successful females and broods may stick around into September before departing. Molting takes place in the fall in shallow, coastal areas of southwest Alaska by both Russian and Alaska breeders, before settling into wintering areas in the eastern Aleutian Islands, along the Alaska Peninsula, and as far as Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island.

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