Almost anyone who has crossed the inner Danish waters in the winter will have been able to see the common eider.

You might notice them flying in low above the water in formations, or sitting in flocks, bobbing on the waves. In particular, the stunningly beautiful male eider will often catch your eye.

Softer than soft

Somateria mollissima is the Latin name for the common eider. Somateria is derived from two Ancient Greek words: somatos, which means ‘body’, and erion, which means ‘wool’, referring to eiderdown. The Latin word mollissima means ‘very soft’. Together, it therefore translates as ‘very soft body wool’, which is a particularly apt description for the common eider and its plumage.

The eider duck is a spectacular bird. Its wingspan measures approx. 100 cm, and it weighs almost 3kg. The male eider is a beautiful white with a black belly and a pale peach-coloured breast.

It has a distinctive white, black and pale green head. However, this green colour fades with time once the duck is dead. Therefore, you need to take a picture of it when it’s freshly shot if you want to catch the stunning colours.

Females are typically slightly smaller, but in fact the common eider is about the same size as the smaller goose species, so it’s quite a mouthful for your dog to retrieve when you’re inshore hunting.

The female, like so many other ground-nesting ducks, has a varied brown plumage which provides superb camouflage when it’s on its nest.

The common eider nests in colonies, congregating in large numbers. According to the Danish Ornithological Society, the island of Saltholm in the Sound is the most important Danish breeding site, and it’s estimated that up to 25,000 breeding pairs – or 25 per cent of the Danish common eider population – are found here.

There are both pros and cons associated with breeding in a colony. The advantage is that the individual nest is one of many and thus not as exposed. The downside, however, is that egg thieves such as herring gulls, mink and hares have access to many nests. For man, it has been a significant advantage that the eider nests in colonies, as it has made it much easier to harvest the eiderdown in large quantities directly from the nests.

Name confusion

According to the Danish dictionary, the correct Danish spelling is that there are two d’s in the Danish word for eider – edderfugl – while ornithologists suggest it should only be spelled with a single d, i.e. ederfugl. The reason for this is that the bird has nothing to do with venom – which in Danish is edder.

But the word edder can also have another medical meaning – ‘inflammation’, for example in the joints. So, you could imagine that in the old fisherman’s hovels, where arthritis and inflamed joints were part and parcel of daily life, the people were more than happy to lie down under the light but extremely warm eiderdowns.

Before the arrival of the quilted jacket in the late 1970s, ‘fur coats’ were actually produced from eiderdown. They must have been wonderfully warm and snug to wear on a cold winter’s day.

Population under pressure

The common eider is found along the coasts around the North Pole in North America, Asia and Europe. It is not known how many eiders there are worldwide, but there are millions, and many from the European population cross Denmark when migrating. It’s not unusual to see 50,000 eiders flying past on a single day in south-eastern Denmark.

The eider population has been facing challenges for many years. Several theories have been considered, one of them being that their main source of food, the common mussel, has been declining in number. This may be because of improved water quality, which may sound slightly strange. However, what researchers believe is that the nutrients running off the fields into the inshore waters led to a huge growth in the number of mussels, which resulted in a big increase in the eider population.

It is estimated that in the 1930s, there were only about 1,500 breeding pairs in Denmark, since when this number increased to more than 25,000 breeding pairs in the 1990s. So the stagnant and perhaps even declining population perhaps reflects the fact that we’re now approaching a natural eider population adapted to the cleaner aquatic environment.

When is the best time for hunting?

Mid-October offers particularly good opportunities for bagging an impressive male, because this is when large flocks of migrating eiders pass Denmark from the north. However, many of the ducks remain in Danish waters over the winter, and even in January there are good possibilities for downing an eider when hunting at sea. It is particularly during mild winters that you can see large numbers of eiders along the coasts of south-eastern Denmark.

Hunting – what do you need?

The common eider is traditionally hunted at sea. In other words, from a boat with a motor, where you sail closer and closer to a flock of eiders until you’re finally close enough to shoot when the birds take off from the water. The eider is resilient to shot, so you need to be close, and a wounded bird can dive far and for a long time. It is an unwritten rule that if you’re unlucky enough to wound an eider, you don’t shoot any more birds until the wounded bird has been retrieved and placed in the boat. The aim must always be to pursue and retrieve the wounded bird – even if it means having to ignore other birds.

Hunting at sea does not require elaborate gear. Decoys are not necessary, nor is special clothing; however, your clothes must be warm and waterproof.

When hunting off the coast, you take advantage of the fact that the birds assume you’re just sailing along without representing a threat. This, of course, requires a certain technique as regards approaching the birds, but there is good advice to be found on YouTube and at strandoghavjagt.dk (in Danish).

Eiders can also be hunted from punts and from the beach. When hunting onshore, you MUST have a suitable retriever with you. Here a large, hardy dog is preferable, as the eider duck is a large bird, and swimming in the sea will sap the energy of smaller breeds. For this type of hunting, decoys are an important part of the hunt, and it’s also an advantage to be camouflaged.

A culinary specialty

The eider has a unique flavour and is probably the original reason for the advice that you should always soak diving ducks in buttermilk to remove the unpleasant taste, which undoubtedly comes from all the mussels the eider consumes.

The faint fishy taste can actually be minimised by making sure to remove everything that even vaguely resembles fat from the meat. You need to do everything possible to ensure that only the pure meat is used. You can easily get a couple of good steaks out of the breast of a large male eider.

Some prepare it in the same way they cook calf’s liver. Fry it over a high heat and serve with softly cooked onions, coarse ryebread and a Limfjords Porter. A dish fit for the gods!


Eider


Hunting season in Denmark: The female eider is protected. The male eider can be hunted from 1 October to 31 January.
Number of eider ducks harvested in Denmark: Approx. 27,000 in 2016/2017. The number bagged has been steadily declining from about 40,000 in 2014/2015, which is probably linked to the female now being protected.
High season: October/November.
For the cook: Reckon on one bird for 1-2 people. As a rule, only the trimmed breast fillets are used without any skin or fat. It can also be a good idea to marinate the fillets for 24 hours if you’re not keen on the strong taste.

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