Common Name

Scientific Name

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Photo by Tim Provan
Photo Courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

The surf scoter, Melanitta perspicillata, unlike the two other species of scoters that occur in North America, is found only in on this continent. It breeds in Alaska and northern Canada, and winters along the Pacific coast south to northwestern Mexico and along the Atlantic coast south to Florida and west along the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. In Utah, it is a rare but regular fall migrant and winter visitant, with usually one or two individuals being reported in the state each year. Its breeding habitats are typically small, shallow lakes and ponds in boreal forest or tundra areas. Its wintering habitat is usually shallow marine coastal waters. On its breeding grounds, it eats a variety of freshwater invertebrates, especially mollusks, crustaceans, and insects; elsewhere, during migration and winter, it eats mainly bivalve mollusks (mussels and clams) and occasionally fish eggs.

Nests are on the ground at variable distances, and sometimes rather far, from open water and are well concealed, usually by low branches of conifers or fallen tree trunks. The five to eight eggs are incubated by the female; the duration of incubation is not known but is thought probably to be about 28 to 30 days. The young are tended by the female only and feed themselves upon reaching water. Most females abandon their young at about 55 days, before the young are able to fly, and fledged young assemble into groups, which migrate separately from the adults.

Opinions differ regarding the origin of the name scoter. Some believe that it is a reference to their habit of "scoting" (from "scooting") through breaking waves; others consider the name to be a variation of the word coot, birds with which they are sometimes confused, or of the name scot, a regional name for guillemots and razorbills, which have a superficial resemblance to scoters.


  • Savard, J.-P. L., D. Bordage, and A. Reed. 1998. Surf scoter. Birds of North America 363: 1–27.

  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook[:] a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon & Schuster, New York. xxx + 785 pp.