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What Is a Scoter?

Britt Archer
Britt Archer

There are many different types of ducks, each with its own distinct features and characteristics, and a scoter is just one type found in the world. They are large seaducks that are endemic to Europe, Asia and North America. All scoters belong to the scientific classification genus Melanitta, which is further subdivided into several subgenera containing five distinct species of ducks.

The black scoter, or American scoter (Melanitta americana) is native to North America. These ducks breed in the far northern reaches of the continent, including parts of Canada and Alaska, but spend their winters in the more temperate climates of the southern United States and Mexico. They measure approximately 16 to 19 inches (40.64 to 48.26 centimeters) long, weighing between 2 and 2.5 pounds (0.90 to 1.13 kilograms). This type is black to dark brown with a yellow bill. They're closely related to the common scoter and are one half of the subgenus Oidemia.


Common scoters (Melanitta nigra) grow just a bit larger than their American cousins and measure up to 21.25 inches (53.97 centimeters) long. Melanitta nigra is native to Europe and parts of Asia. The birds are black to dark brown with only a small touch of yellow around their nostrils.

The subgenus Melanitta is made up of three species: the surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) and the white-winged scoter (Melanitta deglandi). All three birds are similar in size and shape to their relatives in the Oidemia subgenus. The main difference between the two groups is that the velvet, surf and white-winged species all have bits of white in their feathers, a feature that is lacking in American and common Melanitta ducks.

Melanitta perspicillata is native to North America and has a similar range to Melanitta americana. Like other birds in the species, they are primarily brown or black in color. Unlike Melanitta americana, the surf scoter has patches of white feathers around its neck and forehead. The ducks' bills are yellow with white patches.

Ducks belonging to the Melanitta fusca species prefer Europe, Asia and parts of the temperate zones of the Middle East. The velvet species measures up to about 23 inches (58.42 centimeters) long and can weigh as much as 3 pounds (1.36 kilograms). Primarily black or brown, this species has a patch of white feathers around its eye and on its wings. Melanitta fusca ducks also have a thick yellow bill with a black base.

The largest of all Melanitta ducks, Melanitta deglandi, lives in North America and Canada. This duck weighs up to 4 pounds (1.81 kilograms) and measures just over 23.5 inches (59.69 centimeters). White-winged scoters look similar to velvets, but have a vastly different geographic range, making confusion of the two species impossible.

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