Alaska Science Center

Pacific Common Eider, Somateria mollissima v-nigrum

High-Priority Species List

Almost all (>95%) of the 80,000 Pacific common eider population that nests on the North Slope of Alaska and northwestern Canada Alaska winters in northeast Asia. In addition it is likely that some of the 20,000 Common eiders that nest in the Aleutian Islands winter in northeast Asia along the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia.
Pacific common eiders nest in coastal regions from eastern Russia, northwestern Canada, and in Alaska from the eastern North Slope to the far western Aleutian Islands (Kear 2005, Dement’ev and Gladkov 1967). Eiders are found in the arctic and sub-arctic in dense nesting colonies on islands and shorelines in fresh water lakes, coastal barrier islands, off-shore islands, and moist coastal wetlands (Gabrielson and Lincoln 1959, Goudie et. al 2000), and at the southern portion of its range, under trees and brush (Gabrielson and Lincoln 1959). Eiders from discrete breeding areas winter in primarily non-overlapping areas (Petersen and Flint 2002, Petersen pers. com.). For instance, the bulk of the population which nests in northern Alaska and northwest Canada winters along the Chukotka Peninsula (including St. Lawrence Island) with a small percent wintering south along the Russian Far East coast and in Bristol Bay. The population that nests on the YKD winters primarily in open waters off the YKD to Bristol Bay and south to the north side of the Alaska Peninsula. In winter birds are generally in small (100s), dense flocks and restricted to coastal waters. Eiders may be found in large (10,000s), dense flocks when staging during spring migration (Goudie et. al 2000).

Common eiders are accidental in Japan (Brazil 1991) and common in the Sea of Okhotsk and along the Kamchatka Peninsula coast in winter (Dement’ev and Gladkov 1967). The breeding origins of these wintering birds are unknown, but are most likely from the closest known nesting areas in the western Aleutian Islands (Near, Rat and Andraenof islands), Commander Islands, and northeast Kamchatka Peninsula. Birds infected in Asia during winter and returning to North America to nest are most likely to be from the western Aleutian Islands and North Slope/northwest Canadian breeding populations.

We propose sampling at least 200 Common eiders from each of the major nesting areas or colonies. Since nesting populations appear to be genetically and behaviorally distinct, the probability of eiders being exposed to the Asian strain of H5N1 of each sampling area varies. Based on the known or subjective probability that some portion of eiders from each breeding area winters in Asia and their distribution in Asia, birds nesting in the Aleutian Islands, Near Islands (most likely), the North Slope/Western Canadian Arctic (known to winter in northeast Asia), Aleutian Islands, offshore islets of Adak Island (possibly), and YKD (rarely) may be exposed to Asian H5N1 in winter.

Many samples will be from fresh fecal material deposited on eggs as the hen flushes; however, the relationship of the viral loads of cloacal and fresh fecal samples is unknown, but assumed to be strong. Thus, cloacal samples and fecal samples will be taken from 200 captured birds.

Locations, numbers, demographics, and timing of sampling

  • Aleutian Islands, Near Islands, 200 samples. Samples from adult females will be collected in late-May to early June 2006 from Attu, Agattu, Nizki, and Alaid islands with 50 individuals per island from as many locations as possible on each island. All individuals will be nesting females early in incubation. Capture of 25 birds will be by nest trapping (mist netting, dip net, bow trap). Tracheal and cloacal swabs, blood plasma, and fecal samples will be taken from these eiders. The remainder (175) of the samples will be from fresh fecal samples deposited on eggs as the hen flushes.
  • North Slope/Western Canadian Arctic, 200 samples. Samples of adult males and females shot at Barrow will be taken during May-June. Cloacal samples will be acquired from birds shot during spring migration by subsistence hunters.
  • Aleutian Island, Andraenof Islands, offshore islets of Adak Island, 50 samples. Fresh fecal samples from nesting adult females will be collected in early to mid-June. Due to the relatively small number of nesting COEI, a larger sample size is unlikely.
  • YKD, 400 samples. (1) Both cloacal and fecal samples of 100 nesting individuals and 50 fecal samples from additional hens will be collected at Kigigak Island (150 total individuals; 100 individuals fecal, 50 individuals fecal & cloacal), which has a large, relatively dense concentration (colony) of common eiders. (2) Fecal samples from 200 females representing the remaining central (coastal) Y-K Delta nesting population will occur at Baird Inlet (25 fecal), Tutakoke River (50 cloacal & fecal, 100 fecal), and the random plot surveys (25 fecal).

Other targeted species Significant numbers of spectacled eiders, black brant, and emperor geese are present at all sampling locations on the YKD. Although northern pintail and long-tailed ducks also nest in these areas, few nests are found each year and individuals not on nests are difficult to capture. Nesting Steller’s eiders are rarely found. King eiders are the most common eider shot during spring migration at Barrow and will be available for sampling.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Migratory Bird Management (Yukon Delta NWR ground plot surveys)
Contact: Julian Fischer

Yukon Delta NWR (Yukon Delta NWR ground plot surveys, Tutakoke River, Kigigak Island,
Kokechik Bay, and Baird Inlet)
Contact: Fred Broerman

Alaska Maritime NWR (Aleutian Islands - Near Islands & Adak Islets)
Contact: Vernon Byrd

U.S. Geological Survey (Aleutian Islands - Near Islands)
Alaska Science Center
Contact: Margaret Petersen

University of Nevada, Reno (Tutakoke River)
Contact: Jim Sedinger

North Slope Borough (Barrow - North Slope/Western Canadian Arctic breeding birds)
Contact: Robert Suydam
Brazil, M. A. 1991. The birds of Japan. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. Dement'ev, G. P. and N. A. Glandov, eds. 1967. Birds of the Soviet Union. Israel Program for Scientific Translations, Jerusalem.

Flint, V. E., R. L. Boehme, Y: V. Kostin, and A. A. Kuznetsov. 1984. A field guide to the birds of the USSR. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Gabrielson, I. N. and F. C. Lincoln. 1959. Birds of Alaska. Wildlife Management Institute, Washington, D.C.

Goudie, R. I., G. J. Robertson, and A. Reed. 2000. Common Eider (Somateria mollissima). In The Birds of North America, No. 546 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Kear, J., ed. 2005. Ducks, Geese, and Swans, Vol 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Petersen, M. R. and P. L. Flint. 2002. Population structure of Pacific common eiders breeding in Alaska. Condor 104: 780-787.

Distribution map of Pacific Common Eider

Ranking Score: 10.0

Asian H5N1 ranking criteria for Pacific Common Eider, Somateria mollissima v-nigrum.

Total of partial
contact with Asia1
Contact with
known "hot spot"2
Habitat used in
Pop. in Alaska4
Can samples be
Approx. 80,000 winter in Russia and breed in North America and 30,000 breed in northeastern Russia
No known use of AI-infected areas
Breeds in wet or moist tundra meadows near wetlands or on barrier islands. Winters in coastal waters
Est. 120,000 in northern Alaska and western Canada, 25,000 in western Alaska, 20,000 in Aleutian Isls.
Could be difficult to obtain at a few locations
Image of Pacific Common Eider, photo by J. Wasley