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Saturday, July 2, 2022

The common sea duck, the eider, contributes to its own conservation by donating its feathers.

The common eider is a sea duck that breeds in colonies on islands along the coast of North America from Maine to Labrador, and in the mouth of the river and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec.

Eider down feathers cling to each other thanks to microscopic hooks on the notches, which are the main element of the down feather. A tangle of barbules, consisting of barbules, traps air and loses its insulating ability. These exceptional characteristics of eiderdown have been used for hundreds of years to make bed quilts.

In Canada, the collection of eider down is regulated by the Migratory Bird Convention Act. Collectors must obtain permission from Environment and Climate Change Canada and follow strict protocol when visiting the colony to minimize disturbance. Foragers should also record the number of nests they see in the colony in order to keep track of the eider population.

As an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal, I study the ecology and management of migratory birds, especially ducks and geese. As director of the non-profit conservation organization Société Duvetnor, I coordinate the eider down collection operations on the islands of the St. Lawrence Estuary.

Down keeps eggs warm

Each colony has from several tens to several thousand nests. Eiders share their nesting islands with herring gulls and black-backed gulls, which are predators of eiderdown eggs and ducklings.

Females return year after year to the same nesting island and may reuse the same nest. Colony changes are very rare, so it is important to protect nesting islands. The female starts nesting at about three years of age and can live up to 20 years.

Female eider on her nest.
(Francis St-Pierre), Author provided

Each female eider lays four to six eggs in a nest on the ground, which she lines with down to keep the eggs warm and hidden from predators. By plucking down feathers from the breast, females expose the incubator plate, which allows better heat transfer to the eggs to ensure the development of the embryo.

Population monitoring

Since 2003, I have been leading a research project to study the population dynamics of estuarine eiders. Members of my team join the foragers in capturing and ringing females as they leave their nests. Banding data allow evaluation of, among other things, the survival and fidelity of females in colonies. Our results showed that eider populations in the estuary are relatively stable.

Only one colony visit per year is allowed, and harvesting must be synchronized with the end of incubation, which lasts an average of 26 days. Down should not be collected after nesting, as it quickly soaks from dew and rain and is therefore unsuitable for use. Hatching is fairly synchronous, and females leave their nest with their young no later than 24 hours after the last egg hatches.

Common Eider Nest
Common eider nest.
(Francis St-Pierre), Author provided

At the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the extraction of down was carried out in early June about 25 years ago. Now it happens at the end of May. This advancement of the eider nesting season demonstrates the effects of climate change.

The forager team must systematically move through the colony without turning back to allow the females to return to their nests, which they do within minutes or hours of the foragers’ passage.

The amount of down collected from each nest varies depending on the amount of down present. The rule is to leave enough down to cover the eggs, as the female does when she leaves her nest, which she does once a day to go for a drink. Unlike other duck species, female eiders do not feed during the incubation period. This behavior is possibly the result of gulls attacking eider nests.

luxury resource

The fluff collected from the colonies must be cleaned of branches, feathers and other debris that enters the nests. In fact, only 15-20% of the down collected in the colony can be cleaned and made into blankets. About 170 nests are required to produce one kilogram of cleaning down. The annual global production of eider down is between 4,000 and 5,000 kg, of which about 70% comes from Iceland, 20% from Canada, and the rest from Greenland, Norway, Finland and Russia.

Down Bags
Down collected by Société Duvetnor in 2016 from 2,530 eider nests on Blanche Island.
(Francis St-Pierre), Author provided

Given that it takes about one kilogram of down to make a duvet, it is clear that the annual production of duvets is very limited, hence the high price, which can range from $6,000 to $10,000 depending on the size of the duvet. The wholesale price received from the sale of down fluctuates from year to year and can reach $ 1,500 per kilogram.

Reinvesting profits to protect species

Société Duvetnor has been harvesting for 40 years in a dozen colonies at the mouth of the river. The proceeds from the sale of down allowed Duvetnor to buy islands that are home to eiders and other seabirds. Thus were Ile-aux-Lièvres, Pot-à-l-Hauts-de-Vie and the Pilgrims’ Archipelago protected.

The Boat Is Heading For The Island
Excursion to the lighthouse of the island of Pot-à-l’Eau-de-Vie aboard the boat Le Renard. Société Duvetnor is engaged in ecotourism in part thanks to its eiderdown revenue.
(Patrick Nadeau), Author provided

The down income also allows Duvetnor to run an ecotourism program that gives visitors the opportunity to discover the islands of the lower St. Lawrence River. Staying in hotels, chalets or campsites allows holidaymakers to observe, among other things, broods of eiders that feed on small aquatic invertebrates along the coasts of the island.

This close contact with nature makes visitors aware of the importance of preserving these natural environments, which are partly protected by the income generated from down.

In this way, eiders make a real contribution to their own conservation.

World Nation News Desk
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