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10 Fascinating Facts About Black Scoters

The Black Scoter, scientifically known as Melanitta americana, is a sea duck species that is often seen on the North American coasts and in the Arctic regions. This bird species is fascinating and unique for various reasons, including its striking black plumage, elaborate courtship rituals and distinctive vocalizations.

Whether you are a birder, bird lover or just someone interested in learning more about the world’s wildlife, this article will delve deeper into the identification, plumages and molts of the Black Scoter.


Field Identification

The Black Scoter is a medium-sized diving duck, weighing between 1.2 and 2.3 kg and measuring 43 to 54 centimeters in length. The male Black Scoters are entirely black with distinctive yellow patches on the base of their bills, while females have dark brown plumage with two pale patches on each side of their faces.

Juvenile Black Scoters have more textured and mottled brown plumage that can appear almost black. In flight, the black underwings and white patches on the forewings distinguish the Black Scoter from other scoter species.

Similar species

The Black Scoter is often confused with two other scoter species, the Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) and the White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca). The Surf Scoter has a distinctive white patch on the back of its head, and the White-winged Scoter has a white patch on its wings and face, while the Black Scoter lacks these features.


The Black Scoter undergoes a complete molt that occurs after the breeding season and before migrating. During this time, adult males and females become flightless and acquire their non-breeding plumages.

After the molt, males and females look very similar, with darker brown plumage with white patches on their nape and cheek. Juvenile Black Scoters molt twice within their first year, acquiring their adult plumage before their first migration.


The Black Scoter, like all birds, undergoes an annual molt, which is the process of shedding old feathers and growing new ones. Molting typically occurs after breeding and before migration.

In the case of the Black Scoter, the males and females undergo a complete molt, which means that they lose all of their feathers at once. During the molt, the Black Scoters lose their ability to fly and are vulnerable to predators.

The Black Scoters require ample food supply to sustain themselves during this time. In conclusion, the Black Scoter is a beautiful and unique bird species that is often seen along North American coasts and in the Arctic regions.

Its striking black plumage, elaborate courtship rituals, and distinctive vocalizations make it a fascinating species to observe. Through a deeper understanding of the identification, plumages and molts of the Black Scoter, we can appreciate and preserve this species for generations to come.

Systematics History

The Black Scoter, scientifically known as Melanitta americana, is a sea duck species that belongs to the Anatidae family. The systematics history of this bird species dates back to the early 19th century.

In 1838, John James Audubon, the renowned American ornithologist, described the Black Scoter as a new species in his book “The Birds of America.” However, due to its similarity to the other two scoter species, the White-winged Scoter and the Surf Scoter, the Black Scoter was initially considered a subspecies of the Surf Scoter.

Geographic Variation

The Black Scoter has a widespread distribution, breeding in the tundra regions of the Arctic and wintering along the coasts of North America, Europe, and Asia. There are also records of this species occurring in inland freshwater habitats, particularly during migration.

Due to their extensive distribution, Black Scoters exhibit geographic variation in their morphological and genetic characteristics.


There are two recognized subspecies of the Black Scoter: the North American Black Scoter and the East Asian Black Scoter. The North American subspecies (Melanitta americana americana) breeds in Alaska and Canada, while the East Asian subspecies (Melanitta americana stejnegeri) breeds in northeastern Russia.

The two subspecies are distinguished mainly by the size and shape of their bills, with the East Asian subspecies having a shorter and broader bill.

Related Species

The Black Scoter is closely related to other scoter species, including the Surf Scoter and the White-winged Scoter, with which they share many morphological and behavioral traits. Another closely related species is the Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca), which breeds in the same regions as the Black Scoter and winters along the coasts of northern Europe.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Black Scoter’s distribution has shown some historical changes over the past few decades. The population of Black Scoters in the eastern North America region has shown a decline, likely due to pollution and habitat loss in their breeding and wintering habitats.

In contrast, the population in the western North America region has remained relatively stable. The conservation efforts in this region have focused mainly on reducing oil spills and protecting estuarine habitats.

In Europe, the Black Scoter has shown a dramatic increase in wintering numbers in recent years. This increase can be attributed to a reduction in harvesting and habitat loss and an increase in the availability of prey species.

The recovery of the Black Scoter population in Europe is an excellent example of successful conservation actions. In Asia, the Black Scoter has experienced population declines due to habitat loss and unsustainable hunting practices.

The conservation efforts in Asia have focused mainly on the establishment of protected areas and the control of hunting activities. The success of these efforts is limited, as illegal hunting remains a significant threat to the Black Scoter population in Asia.


In conclusion, the Black Scoter is a fascinating sea duck species with an extensive distribution, morphological and genetic variations and closely related species. The systematics history of this bird species shows that it has undergone several changes in its classification over the past few centuries.

The population of the Black Scoter has shown some historical changes due to environmental factors and human activities. The conservation efforts in different regions have been successful in protecting the Black Scoter population, and it is imperative to continue these efforts to ensure the long-term survival of this bird species.


The Black Scoter is a migratory bird species that breeds in the tundra regions of the Arctic and winters along the coasts of North America, Europe, and Asia. During the breeding season, the Black Scoter nests in shallow ponds and wetlands situated in the Arctic’s lowland tundra regions.

They primarily prefer habitats that are densely vegetated with shrubs and sedges, which provide adequate cover and protection from predators. In winter, the Black Scoter moves southwards to coastal habitats where they feed on a wide variety of marine invertebrates.

The Black Scoters prefer habitats that offer access to shallow waters with rocky or sandy bottoms, where they can forage for benthic invertebrates. They also inhabit estuaries, bays, and coastal lagoons that offer shelter from the harsh weather conditions during winter.

Movements and Migration

The Black Scoter undertakes two major migrations each year as it travels from its breeding grounds to its wintering sites, and vice versa. The spring migration commences in March, and the fall migration begins in August.

Both migrations involve long-distance flights that cover thousands of kilometers, with many birds traveling from the Arctic to as far south as Mexico or the Caribbean. The Black Scoter forms large flocks in its wintering grounds, with several hundred birds flying together in a regular V-shaped pattern.

This pattern helps to conserve energy during flight and allows the birds to navigate their migration routes more efficiently. During migration, the Black Scoter makes stopovers at critical habitats along their flyway route, where they rest and refuel.

These stopover habitats are vital to the Black Scoters survival, as they enable them to rebuild their strength before continuing their long journey. Climate change is now impacting the Black Scoter migration patterns.

The Arctic temperatures have increased at twice the rate of the global average, altering the timing of ice breakup that has impacted the distribution of the Black Scoter. As a result of this, Black Scoters are now migrating northwards earlier as the ice breaks up earlier in the Arctic regions.

The Black Scoter populations breeding in Russia have shown major shifts in their migration routes, possibly representing a range shift associated with climate change. The changes in seasonal migratory patterns of the Black Scoter have significant implications for their survival and reproductive success.

Conservation Implications

Several conservation measures have been put in place to protect the Black Scoter and its habitat. These measures include the establishment of protected areas and the implementation of hunting regulations.

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a joint initiative between the United States and Canada, aims to protect migratory bird species by conserving their habitat and ensuring sustainable hunting practices. The plan’s primary goal is to maintain the Black Scoters population at or above the current levels and ensure the sustained use of their habitat for generations to come.

The conservation efforts for Black Scoters must also consider the impacts of climate change and habitat loss. These factors can cause significant changes in their populations and migratory patterns, affecting their survival and reproductive success.

Therefore, it is imperative that conservation programs for the Black Scoter take into account long-term, adaptive management strategies to ensure the species future survival.


In conclusion, the Black Scoter is a migratory bird species that breeds in the tundra regions of the Arctic and winters along the coasts of North America, Europe, and Asia. The Black Scoter inhabits specific habitats throughout the year that are crucial to their survival.

The Black Scoter undertakes long and complex migrations twice a year, utilizing seasonal habitats crucial for their success. Climate change, hunting, and habitat loss can impact the Black Scoter population, but conservation measures such as the North American Waterfowl Management plan that support the species can help in its survival.

Diet and Foraging


The Black Scoter is a diving duck that feeds predominantly on invertebrates. They utilize their unique bill to search for and capture prey found on the seafloor.

They use their strong legs to dive to depths of up to 32 feet, where they can remain submerged for about 30 seconds. The Black Scoter swims along the seafloor, using its bill to probe and sift through the sediment for food.

When feeding, Black Scoters can be seen diving in groups of up to 50 individuals.


The Black Scoter’s diet varies based on their location and season. During the breeding season, their diet consists primarily of aquatic insects, with a preference for the larval stages of mosquitoes and other flies.

In winter, their diet mainly consists of benthic invertebrates, including crabs, clams, mussels, and other shellfish.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Due to the cold temperatures at their breeding and wintering grounds, Black Scoters must regulate their temperature to maintain their body heat. To accomplish this, Black Scoters have evolved a unique metabolic response to the cold that allows them to generate and conserve heat.

They have an elevated metabolic rate and are capable of metabolizing their food more efficiently than other birds. Additionally, Black Scoters possess a thick layer of down feathers that provides insulation and reduces heat loss.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Black Scoters are known for their loud and distinctive vocalizations that are used in communication during courtship and mating. During courtship displays, the males emit low, booming sounds to attract the females.

These sounds are produced by the males inflating their esophagus and expelling the air as they display to the females. The females respond to these calls with high-pitched sounds that are believed to indicate their interest.

During breeding, Black Scoters also use a range of calls to communicate with their partners and offspring. These calls include a low growl, a croaking noise, and a quack-like sound.

They also communicate with other members of their flock with a variety of whistles and grunts during feeding and other group activities. In conclusion, the Black Scoter possesses many unique adaptations that allow it to feed, search for food, and thrive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic breeding areas and wintering grounds.

Its efficient metabolism and ability to regulate body temperature keeps them alive in cold climates, while their foraging techniques ensure they find and consume enough food to survive. The Black Scoter’s vocal behaviors during courtship and mating are unique and play a crucial role in their reproductive success.



The Black Scoter is an excellent swimmer and diver, utilizing its powerful wings for propulsion in the water and its webbed feet for steering and stability. They are capable of diving to great depths to forage for food, staying underwater for up to 30 seconds while filtering through the sediment with their bills.

Black Scoters are less agile on land, but they can walk and run on land when necessary.

Self Maintenance

Black Scoters spend a considerable amount of time preening and grooming themselves, ensuring their feathers are well-maintained and waterproof. The oil glands located at the base of their tail generate oils that the birds spread across their feathers using their beak during preening.

The oil repels water, keeping the birds feathers dry even when they spend much of their time in water.

Agonistic behavior

Black Scoters exhibit agonistic behavior towards other members of their species when resources are scarce. This behavior is mainly for establishing dominance over mates or food sources.

During aggressive encounters, both males and females may use their bills and wings to fend off their opponents.

Sexual Behavior

Black Scoters are monogamous during breeding season, with males engaging in elaborate courtship displays to attract their chosen mate. The displays involve wing-flapping, head-bobbing, and vocalizations that showcase the male’s strength and desirable traits.


The breeding season of the Black Scoter typically takes place from late May to mid-August in the Arctic breeding grounds. They form pairs after completing their migration from the wintering grounds and engage in courtship displays to solidify their bond.

The male Black Scoter initiates these displays by flapping his wings, bobbing his head, and making low-frequency sounds. The female responds to the male’s display by chirping and emitting high-pitched calls.

The pair then settles on a nesting site, typically located near a wetland or a shallow pond with sufficient vegetation cover. The female Black Scoter then lays a clutch of 4-8 eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 25-30 days.

The chicks are precocial and can fend for themselves almost immediately after hatching, though they still rely on their parents for warmth, protection, and guidance.

Demography and Populations

The Black Scoter populations across their range are generally stable, with some fluctuations in certain regions. The North American population of the Black Scoter has shown a decline of around 38% between 1999 and 2019, likely due to pollution and habitat loss in their breeding and wintering habitats.

The population of Black Scoters breeding in Russia has shown a decline due to habitat loss and unsustainable hunting practices. However, numbers have stabilized since the 2000s.

In Europe, the Black Scoter populations have shown a dramatic increase in wintering numbers in recent years. This increase can be attributed to the reduction of harvesting and habitat loss and an increase in prey species’ availability.

The recovery of the Black Scoter population in Europe is a remarkable example of successful conservation actions. In summary, Black Scoters exhibit a wide range of behaviors that enhance their ability to survive and thrive in their environments.

They are remarkable swimmers and divers with unique adaptations that enable them to forage and locate prey successfully. During the breeding season, they engage in rituals that help to solidify pair bonds and enhance reproductive success.

While Black Scoter populations experience fluctuations in certain areas, they are generally stable across their range, and conservation measures have helped to increase their populations in some regions. In conclusion, the Black Scoter is a fascinating bird species with unique adaptations that enable it to survive and thrive in a vast range of habitats, from the cold Arctic breeding grounds to the warm coastal lagoons during wintering.

The article has covered various aspects, including the systematics history, geographic variation, diet, foraging, vocal behavior, behaviors during breeding, and populations. Despite the challenges Black Scoter faces, such as habitat loss, human activities, and climate change, conservation efforts have improved their populations in certain regions, and more work is being done to ensure their long-term survival.

The Black Scoter highlights the importance of understanding, appreciating, and conserving the natural world’s diverse species.

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