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Discover the Fascinating World of Common Scoters: From Plumage to Behaviour and Conservation Efforts

Common Scoter, also known as Melanitta nigra, is a large sea duck that is found in Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. In this article, we will explore the identification, plumages, molts, and similar species of this fascinating bird.


Common Scoters are black in color with a yellow spot on their bill. They are large ducks that have a broad wingspan of about 74-90cm, and their average weight ranges from 1.1-2.2 kg.

They have a distinctive white patch on the nape of their neck, and the females have a brownish hue on their feathers. Field


Common Scoters have a unique flying style, with rapid wingbeats and a low, level flight.

They often fly close to the water’s surface, occasionally plunging into the water to feed. They are most often observed in groups, and their flight patterns are highly synchronized.

Similar Species

There are three closely related species of Melanitta found in Europe: Velvet Scoter, White-winged Scoter, and Surf Scoter. The Velvet Scoter is easily distinguished from the Common Scoter as it has a white patch on its wings, and the males have a white forehead.

The White-winged Scoter is much larger than the Common Scoter and has a white patch on its wings. Surf Scoter is distinguished by its white patch on its forehead, and the females have a brown, triangular patch behind the eye.


Common Scoters go through two molts each year, the breeding and non-breeding plumage. During the breeding season, males have a darker plumage, and their bill is reddish in color.

The females have a brownish hue on their feathers and a yellow bill with a dark tip. During the non-breeding season, both male and female Common Scoters have a much duller plumage, and their bills become black.

Juvenile Common Scoters have a pale brown plumage, which gradually darkens as they mature.


Common Scoters undergo two molts each year, the breeding season molt, and the post-breeding molt. The breeding season molt occurs in April/May before the nesting season begins, where the males develop their breeding plumage, and the females darken their feathers.

After the breeding season, Common Scoters undergo a second molt, where they replace their feathers in preparation for the winter season. This molt takes place mainly between July and September.

During this process, the birds gradually lose their breeding plumage.


In conclusion, Common Scoter is one of the most interesting sea ducks found in Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s easy to identify, and with practice, bird lovers can tell it apart from the other closely related species of Melanitta, such as the Velvet Scoter, the White-winged Scoter, and the Surf Scoter.

Understanding the different plumages and molts of the Common Scoter can help bird enthusiasts to appreciate and observe this fascinating species better.

Systematics History

The systematics history of the Common Scoter, or Melanitta nigra, is complex, with various taxonomic changes occurring over the years. Initially, the Common Scoter was classified as a subspecies of the Velvet Scoter, but it wasn’t until 1954 that it was recognized as a distinct species by the British Ornithologists’ Union.

Geographic Variation

The Common Scoter has a widespread distribution across the Northern hemisphere. However, there are significant differences in plumage, bill shape, and size among individuals from different regions.

These geographic variations have led to the recognition of several subspecies.


There are four recognized subspecies of Common Scoter, each with unique characteristics:

1. M.

n. americana: This subspecies is found in North America, and it is the largest of all the subspecies.

Males have a larger bill than other subspecies. 2.

M. n.

nigra: Found across the European continent, this subspecies has a darker bill than subspecies from other regions. 3.

M. n.

americana: This subspecies is found in eastern Asia, from northern Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It has a larger and broader bill than other subspecies.

4. M.

n. velox: Found in western Asia, this subspecies has a smaller bill compared to other subspecies.

Related Species

The Common Scoter has three close relatives that belong to the same genus, which are the Surf Scoter, Velvet Scoter, and the White-winged Scoter. All four species have similar behaviors, feeding habits, and habitats.

Historical Changes to Distribution

Historical changes have had significant impacts on the distribution of the Common Scoter. One significant factor affecting the distribution of this bird is climate change.

During the last Ice Age, the Common Scoter was confined to small refugia in the southern coast of Europe. After the ice receded, the Common Scoter expanded its distribution to the North and East, eventually colonizing the areas where they currently occur.

Human activities, such as logging and agriculture, have also had significant impacts on the distribution of this species. The increased use of pesticides has led to the decline of breeding populations in some regions.

In addition, human disturbance during the breeding season has led to a decrease in reproductive success for many populations.


The Common Scoter is a fascinating species with a complex systematics history, geographic variations, different subspecies, and close relatives. Changes in the distribution of this species have been influenced by different factors, including climate change and human activities.

Understanding these factors and their impact on the distribution of the Common Scoter is crucial for its conservation and management.


Common Scoters are primarily marine birds that inhabit the coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere. During the breeding season, they prefer to nest near freshwater lakes, marshes, and rivers in northern boreal forests.

They particularly prefer areas with an abundance of trees for nesting and breeding. During the non-breeding season, the Common Scoter moves to marine habitats such as inshore coastal waters, bays, estuaries, and harbors.

These areas provide an abundant food source of mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic invertebrates, which are all part of their winter diet.

Movements and Migration

Common Scoters are migratory birds, and during the fall months, they begin moving towards their wintering grounds. Some of these birds fly very long distances, with some traveling over several thousand kilometers.

Most of the Common Scoters that breed in Siberia winter in East Asia and the Pacific. During migration, Common Scoters fly in flocks, and this social behavior provides benefits such as increased feeding opportunities and predator avoidance.

Predators such as eagles, moles, and foxes pose a significant threat to the survival of Common Scoters. During the wintering period, Common Scoters adapt to the different environments that they occupy.

They remain near the coast, as it provides a stable source of food. Common Scoters are diving birds, and their diving behavior supports their wintering survival.

They dive to depths of 20m or more, and can hold their breath for up to 45 seconds in search of food. In the spring, the Common Scoter returns to its breeding grounds and begins the nesting process.

Common Scoters usually form pair bonds for the breeding season. During the nesting season, they can be found near freshwater lakes and ponds, where they can access food for their young.

After breeding, Common Scoters migrate back to the coastlines to spend their non-breeding season.


Common Scoters are fascinating birds that depend on marine and freshwater habitats for their survival. They are migratory birds that navigate over long distances twice a year.

During migration, they fly in flocks to take advantage of the benefits of social behavior, such as predator avoidance. During the nesting season, they are found near freshwater lakes and on trees for nesting.

Understanding their movements and habitats is crucial for their conservation, management, and protection.

Diet and foraging


Common Scoters are diving ducks that spend most of their time foraging for invertebrates that are found near the seafloor. They dive to depths of up to 20 meters to look for food, and they have an efficient metabolism that enables them to stay underwater for up to 40 seconds.

The Common Scoter is an exceptional swimmer and can dive propulsively when looking for food.


Common Scoters mostly feed on mollusks, which are a stable food source in the ocean. Some of the mollusks that make up their diet include mussels, shellfish, and snails.

They also feed on small crustaceans, such as crabs, shrimps, and other meiofaunal organisms. Common Scoters’ diet varies depending on the season and location.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Common Scoters have an exceptional metabolism that enables them to regulate their body temperature in cold waters. Their metabolism is high, and they burn fat to generate heat.

During the breeding season, the high caloric diet, consisting of a variety of food sources, is essential for their successful breeding. In winter, they also develop an insulating layer of fat that helps to keep them warm.

Sounds and vocal behavior


Common Scoters are social birds and have complex and varied vocalizations that they use to communicate with members of their flock and to attract a mate during the breeding season. The vocalizations that the Common Scoter makes varies depending on the situation and the intended recipient of the call.

During courtship, males and females call out to each other with soft whistle sounds, and in some cases, they can be heard honking. Common Scoters also have a unique vocalization that they use to communicate with their offspring.

The chicks call to their parents, who respond with a unique vocalization that is recognizable to their chicks. This communication is critical as it ensures that the parents locate their brood in their aquatic habitat.


The Common Scoter has unique and complex feeding behaviors, diet, and metabolism that allow them to survive in the ocean. The Scoters’ sounds are diverse and essential for communication and successful breeding.

By understanding Common Scoter’s diet and foraging behaviors, we can learn more about their ecology, habitat, and conservation. Similarly, understanding their vocalization behavior can assist in restoring their populations and understanding their unique social behavior.


Common Scoter is a social bird species that are highly adapted for their aquatic environment, with unique locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic, and sexual behavior.


Common Scoters are diving birds with wings that have evolved for rapid underwater movement. They move by paddling their legs and using their wings for added propulsion.

They are adapted for swimming underwater, with aerodynamic diving ability known as a streamlined shape. The Common Scoter is also a strong flyer, capable of fast and nimble flight.


Common Scoters spend a lot of time grooming their feathers while floating on the water surface. They spread oil from a preen gland onto their feathers during grooming, which helps repel water and helps keep their feathers from becoming waterlogged, thus insulating their body.



Common Scoters have highly developed agonistic behavior, which are social interactions used to establish dominance hierarchy. Aggressive behaviors such as tail shaking, wing flapping, and bill jousting are common in males, where individual birds fight for the right to mate with females.



During the breeding season, males of the Common Scoter species display elaborate courtship behavior when seeking to mate with females. Males will swim close to the females and make a soft whistle or honking sound to attract their attention.

The female will respond to the males with specific vocalizations that signify their interest in mating.


The breeding season of Common Scoters occurs in the spring and early summer. Males establish their breeding territories, and females will choose a mate for mating and nesting.

They nest in the forest and close to freshwater habitats, with the female incubating the eggs and brooding the chicks. It takes approximately 60 days to complete the breeding cycle.

Demography and Populations

The population of Common Scoters is difficult to measure and understand, given their wide-ranging and long-distance movements. Sprawling breeding populations in wooded areas and the Atlantic coast inhabit these birds during the breeding season.

Understanding the Common Scoters’ population depends on maintaining population records from their various breeding and foraging locations. Conservation efforts are in place for the conservation of Common Scoters, with some being classified as threatened or endangered.

Several factors such as hunting, fishing activities, and oil spills are examples of the main human threats to the populations of these birds. The decline in populations of Common Scoters is a concern, given their ecological importance and the role they play in maintaining the overall balance of their ecosystems.


The Common Scoter is a highly social bird species that displays unique behavior during locomotion, self-maintenance, sexual courtship and aggression during the breeding season. Their breeding and population demography are dependent on various factors, and conservation efforts, such as regulation of hunting and protection of habitats, are crucial for their survival.

Understanding Common Scoters’ behavior, breeding, and population demography is crucial to maintain and conserve these fascinating, highly adapted birds and the ecosystems they inhabit. In conclusion, the Common Scoter is a fascinating and highly adaptable species with unique characteristics such as their diving abilities, sound behaviors, and social behavior.

Understanding their habitat, population, and behavior, assists in their conservation and management, as well as highlighting the importance of habitat protection to maintain their ecological value. Taking key steps towards understanding and managing Common Scoters’ populations is critical for the preservation of our marine ecosystem’s balance and overall health.

Collaborative efforts and a continued commitment towards conservation efforts play an integral part in reducing stress to species populations and ensuring the survival of this captivating and essential bird species.

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