What is a Black Scoter?

Carol Kindle

The black scoter (Melanitta nigra) is a species of sea duck that is found in both the Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters of North America. These ducks are very skilled divers and can descend up to 33 feet (10 meters) below the ocean surface in search of food. Male black scoters have a very distinctive appearance in that they are solid black with a black beak that has a prominent yellow ridge on top.

Black scoter eat mussels.
Black scoter eat mussels.

Female black scoters have a slightly different appearance than the males. Females have brownish black feathers, with pale feathers on both sides of the head. The beak of the female black scoter is solid black and lacks the yellow ridge present on the male. Females are slightly smaller than the male and both fall in the size range of 17-21 inches (43-53 centimeters). Both males and females have a silver coloring under their feathers that is visible when the ducks take flight.

Black scoters can tolerate rough ocean waves.
Black scoters can tolerate rough ocean waves.

The east and west coastal waters of North America serve as the main habitat for the black scoter. These ducks have adapted to life in the ocean and they can tolerate rough ocean waves. They are found in western Alaska during the summer months and they migrate south to the California coast during the winter. The black scoter can also be found along the east coast in Labrador and Newfoundland during the summer and then as far south as South Carolina during the winter months.

Life in the ocean waters has required the black scoter to adapt to diving below the surface in search of food. They feed mainly on mollusks, including mussels and clams, as well as barnacles. The black scoter has a very strong bill that allows it to pry shellfish from rocks and reefs. These shellfish are swallowed whole and digested in the gizzard.

Black scoters mature and begin mating at two to three years of age. They migrate in summer months to nesting areas located near lakes of Alaska and eastern Canada. Females begin making nests of grass that are hidden from view on rocks or near the lake edge. The female lays one brood per year of six to eight pale buff eggs. These eggs are incubated in the nest for approximately 30 days.

Upon hatching, the young ducklings are cared for by the female for about four weeks. They are able to feed on their own on insect larvae and other small crustaceans. Young black scoters eventually migrate from the freshwater lake habitats to open ocean waters.

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