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In some parts of western Scotland, local fishermen grow mussels on long ropes which they suspend from rafts.  When the mussels are mature, the ropes are simple hauled up and the molluscs harvested.  Unfortunately, Eiders relish rope grown mussels as much as the guests in London restaurants and find them just as easy to harvest.  They dive down and strip the ropes in a few hours. They are so destructive to the industry that the fishermen have obtained licences to shoot them. 

 

But for those of us who have no commercial interests in them, Eiders are a delight.    Stand on the shore on a calm morning, gaze out at the raft of Eiders, bobbing gently in the bay, a hundred or so birds, half of them white, the rest dark and listen, just listen!  Their voice is so comical – a soft guttering cooing, like a dove but with an accentuation at the end of each utterance that conveys a hint of surprise, amazement even, like middle aged ladies enjoying a gossip. 

 

‘Cooo-oorrrr! Well what did I tell you. She was out doing it again last Saturday. 

 

‘Cooo-oorrrr! She wasn’t.  She’ll catch er death o’cold.’ 

 

‘Cooo-oorrr!

If you watch carefully, you can see that each scandalized cooo-ooorrr is emphasized by the a throwing back of the head.  I cannot listen to a gossip of Eiders without a smile.  It’s the sound of sea lochs. It makes me happy.        

 

But train your glasses on a garrulous gossip of Eiders. Get in closer. You will notice that it is the males, not the females, who are scandalized. And the male Eiders are among the most beautiful of ducks. Gavin Maxwell, the Scottish naturalist, has compared them to naval officers in their tropical whites, The male is white, trimmed in black – cap, wingtips, tail and abdomen,  but it has the most exquisite shade of olive green patches in the side of the head and nape of the neck and the faintest of blushes on its breast, peachy when dry but more like faint streaks of blood when wet. The brown and black vermiculations of the female appears dowdy by comparison, but the patterning has its own more subtle beauty.  Both ducks have a characteristic profile, the slope of their head extends into the bill in a single straight line.  The black eye disappears into the cap of the male giving it an alien and somewhat sinister appearance like somebody in reflecting glasses.   

 

Eiders are heavy, flat bottomed, ocean going birds, awkward on land with their legs set too far back for dignified gait, but agile and quick underwater and magnificent in flight.  They have the reputation of being the world’s fastest duck in level flight, where speeds of up to 50mph have been recorded. 

 

Although Eiders can be the bane of the mussel farmer, it is a boon for others.  In Iceland and Norway, people farm Eiders for their down.  They encourage dense colonies of thousands of birds by creating protected nesting sites.  The down industry is currently in decline, but at its peak, Icelandic farmers used to gather more than 4 tons of eider down for export in a single season.  This equates to down feathers from quarter of million birds, but this did not threaten the populations of Eider.  Enormous numbers returned to the same fields the following seasons.  It seems there might be scope for commercial collaboration with the mussel fishermen. 

 

Eider down is easy to harvest.  Sitting eiders are extraordinarily tame and will allow farmers to walk among them and even move them over a bit to remove some of the down.  They just continue to ‘sit tight’.  A single nest yields two harvests of down a season and it takes about 30 nests to produce a pound of down. 

 

It is the female that plucks the soft grey breast plumage from her breast to line her nest – creating the perfect incubator for her eggs and such a cosy nursery for her chicks.  Eider down is the softest and most insulating of all natural materials.  The outer edges of the plumules interlock to provide a dense mass that can be compressed and spring out again intact to provide sufficient insulation to remain snug in a sleeping bag at polar temperatures as low as -35C.  In the days before central heating, Thyrotoxicosis was called eiderdown disease, because the raised metabolism would cause patients to throw their eiderdown off the bed in the middle of the night, while their partner would try to keep it on, a serious metabolic cause of marital disharmony.     

 

So as you snuggle below your feather duvet tonight, just spare a thought for the Eider, those strangely heavy, storm ducks bobbing in the surf and swell of  Northern Seas while they chew on pilfered mussels and the latest morsel of scandal they have cleaned from the ropevine.   

 

Cooo-oorrrr!!!

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