We assessed reliability of plumage as an indicator of age class in the Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) for demographic and behavioral studies. Three age classes were distinguished among male Surf Scoters, based on the degree of concordance between plumage characteristics and known age-related features (bursal depth and tail feather notching). Males in their first year (1Y) were distinguishable from older males (>1Y) with nearly total accuracy. Discriminating between second year (2Y) and after second year (>2Y) males had an error rate of 11%. Female Surf Scoters could not be reliably aged using plumage characteristics. Field observations suggested the timing of feather changes is an important variable affecting accurate age class determination. First year male Surf Scoter plumage is brown and female-like at the time of fledging, and gradually becomes more adult male-like during the first year. Observations of plumage changes throughout the annual cycle on wild birds suggested that females and 1Y males may be confused in early autumn, and that 1Y males and 2Y males may be misidentified during late spring and summer. Further, variation in timing and speed of pre- and post-breeding molt among 2Y and older males is uncertain. Therefore, mid-January until the end of March is the period when age class determinations based on plumage are most reliable.
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Vol. 26 • No. 1