Steller’s Eiders Join the aviary

For the first time in the history of the Alaska SeaLife Center, a pair of Steller’s eiders — Prince and Bowie — have been released into the aviary. While Steller’s eiders were previously kept in behind-the-scenes habitats due to their involvement in sensitive research, new developments have allowed aviculturists to share this rare species of arctic duck with the public for the first time.

Female Prince (left) and male Bowie (right)

Steller’s eiders are one of two federally protected waterfowl species in Alaska (alongside spectacled eiders), and a flock has resided at the ASLC since 2001 as part of an ongoing research and conservation program. When the ASLC launched the program, it was the only facility in North America to house Steller’s Eiders, and became the first to successfully breed the species in captivity in 2008.

Research on Steller’s eiders has become especially important in recent years, as populations have shrunk by around 50% since the 1960s and have been absent from several historical nesting sites. In striving to better understand these birds and how to best protect them, the ASLC has utilized its unique, self-sustaining flock to assist in publishing over 20 scientific papers (with more currently in the works). Should Steller’s eiders continue to face trouble in the wild, advances in our general knowledge of the species (along with methods of successfully propagating them under human care) may one day prove vital to their survival and restoration.

Steller’s Eiders are particularly challenging to rear in captivity, and it took many years for the ASLC’s aviculturists to refine breeding and incubation techniques.

Among past Steller’s eider science at the ASLC was a study in cooperation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which investigated the feasibility of restoring depleted wild populations using individuals reared in captivity. The study’s parameters meant that the ASLC’s entire flock were potential release candidates, and therefore subject to strict biosecurity measures preventing their exposure to the public and other species of birds in the aviary. With this study now concluded, aviculturists are able to extend the role of Steller’s eiders at the Center to include education and public outreach — an opportunity for which Prince and Bowie will serve as the first ambassadors!

Chosen out of the ASLC’s flock for their easygoing disposition, juveniles Prince and Bowie were introduced to the aviary in December 2022 and quickly adjusted to their new habitat and neighbors. Roughly the same size and with matching juvenile plumage, the two were virtually identical in appearance upon debut. However, guests could distinguish them using colored identification bands on their left leg (purple for Prince and orange for Bowie).

A recent image of Prince (left) and Bowie (right) as they grow into their adult plumage.

In the months since, distinguishing Prince and Bowie has become easier with the arrival of their first spring molt. Though Prince’s appearance has not changed drastically from that of a juvenile, Bowie’s uniform brown coloration has taken on patches of white with hints of green developing on his head crest. His plumage will develop even further next spring, taking on the full vibrance of an adult male Steller’s eider. To know what to look for, review a full breakdown of Steller’s eider plumage in the guide below!

Bonus: Check out this virtual visit mini-episode for more information and footage of Prince and Bowie’s release.

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