King eider dies 16 years after rescue from oil spill

Michelle Theriault Boots

A king eider duck that was oiled in a spill, flown to Anchorage to be cleaned and then released back into the wild survived for 16 years before finally dying at the hands of a hunter this year.

In February 1996, a collision between a freighter and a crab processor dumped heavy fuel oil into the water off St. Paul Island. Carcasses of hundreds of king eider ducks, a shy, docile species known for extravagant mating plumage that makes males look like a colorful Picasso cubist painting, washed ashore along with other migratory seabirds such as cormorants and crested auklets.

King eider survivors preened furiously on the same beaches. Soon a Berkeley, Calif.-based bird nonprofit that made a name for itself in Alaska during the Exxon-Valdez spill arrived to capture 200 of the birds and fly them by commercial airline to an Anchorage rehabilitation operation.

At the time, International Bird Rescue had never tried transporting birds from such a remote spill site to the city. In a Midtown warehouse, volunteers spent weeks washing ducks with Dawn dish soap, fluffing their feathers back to their normal waterproof condition with toothbrushes and Water Piks and feeding them hooligan and smelt, according to news reports from the time. In March, the 126 surviving ducks were flown back to St. Paul Island, banded and released.

Scientists and rescuers thought it unlikely that they'd be able to track the king eiders -- owing in part to their natural elusiveness and remote habitat, said Jay Holcomb, an emeritus director of International Bird Rescue, which organized the 1996 rehabilitation effort.

"We don't hear from these birds again," he said. "They don't write letters."

But now one has resurfaced. It was killed by a Bethel man in a legal commercial duck hunt off St. Paul Island on Jan. 15. The trophy was rare: Trevor Peterson bagged just the 10th banded king eider on record, according to the website Outdoor Life.

Even rarer: The bird was then traced by information on its band back to the Pribilof spill -- giving its one-time rescuers evidence of the long-term survival of an oiled and rehabilitated duck.

It's a big deal to know the duck lived for 16 years, at the far upper range of its life span, because so little data on the long-term survival of such birds exists, Holcomb said.

Rescuers also contend the recovery of the king eider offers at least anecdotal proof that the cost and effort of rehabilitating oiled birds pays off, something critics have long questioned.

"The question is, do they survive? And is it equal to the time and money you're putting into them?" Holcomb said.

In this case, he said, the answer is yes.

Scientists caution against drawing conclusions based on a single bird. Still, a documented survivor more than 15 years after a spill is something, said Paul Flint, a wildlife biologist who is now a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center. Flint was one of the original U.S. Fish and Wildlife responders to the spill and banded some of the birds himself.

"The recovery of these birds so many years later tells us (the rescue) did work," Flint said.

What's still not known is how many other birds survived, he said. One or two other Pribilof spill birds turned up in the 1990s, said Barbara Callahan of International Bird Rescue's Anchorage office.

The organization heard about the fate of the bird identified in records as King Eider No. 32 in August, Callahan said. The hunter had turned over his tag to a federal banding authority and a friend had by chance alerted the organization to the match, she said.

Logbooks from 1996 describe Eider No. 32 as weak, cold and suffering from a leg abrasion.

He looked, according to the records, like he'd floated right through a slick of oil.

"(No. 32) was one of the more intense, heavily oiled birds," Holcomb said. "And 16 years later, it survived."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.