Sam Iverson: Protecting the Common Eider

Waiting for Sam Iverson in the lobby of Ottawa’s National Wildlife Research Centre, you almost expect the young PhD student and bird biologist to arrive in a green toque and winter jacket, his wide smile framed by a short beard. This is how Iverson has spent most of his last four summers, dressed to fight the Canadian Artic cold, in search of dead and dying Common Eider Ducks.

Today, clean-shaven with his dress shirt neatly tucked in, Iverson is very much in thesis-writing mode. His article on avian cholera, the bacteria that

Sam Iverson stands in front of an icy backdrop in the Canadian Arctic.

Sam Iverson stands in front of an icy backdrop in the Canadian Arctic.

has been killing thousands of Eider ducks since it moved north in 2005, should be done this spring. The young biologist is part of a team led by Iverson’s thesis supervisor, Dr. Mark Forbes from Carleton’s Biology Department. It’s a multidisciplinary group, with some members testing infected corpses in labs while others, like Iverson, spend two months a year in Nunavut collecting samples and mapping where the disease has spread.

The team came together a few years after Inuit hunters first discovered hundreds of dead Eiders on Southampton Island on the North edge of Hudson’s Bay. Strangely many of the birds were still sitting on their nests.

“It’s really unusual for a bird to die the way they do when they have cholera,” says Iverson, reclining in an arm chair on the research centre’s fourth floor. Normally, threatened or sick Eiders try and fly away from their colonies. Avian cholera however, strikes so fast that by the time the birds realize they’re in danger they are often too sick to move.

“There’s anecdotal tales of birds falling out of the air,” says Iverson, eyes widening.

Looking at the way the young biologist’s hands dart back and fourth when he talks about preserving the northern ducks, it’s hard to believe that his fascination with the Eider only dates back about four years. Before that, he was working with the United Nations, tracking down geese that carried the H5N1 strain of the avian flu around the world, notably investigating their migrations through Africa and Kazakhstan.

‘There’s anecdotal tales of birds falling out of the air’ -Sam Iverson 

Following the Bar Headed Geese made Iverson perfectly suited for Dr. Forbes’ team working in Nunavut. Today, the PhD student is tracking the Common Eiders’ migration routes to try and find where they are getting Avian Cholera and how far it could spread.

“My involvement has been sort of spearheading the surveys to get out into the communities and collect samples,” he says. “I’m like the bird movement half, and I work with a colleague who’s the bacterial genetics half.”

Bacteria grows in the birds’ habitat

The bacteria, which spreads when one duck ingests an infected bird’s feces, usually builds up in drinking ponds along the Eiders’ migration routes. Iverson marks each lethal pond on a map to trace the bacteria’s origin and where it might go next. Later, these maps are added to an enormous database he’s been compiling in Ottawa. While Iverson has been investigating migration paths in Northern Quebec and Labrador, he is still very focused on Southampton Island.

A Common Eider Duck fawns over her ducklings

A Common Eider Duck fawns over her ducklings.

Since the Island is a meeting point for a number of bird species he believes the cholera strain was likely brought north by non-eider species. What is harder to understand is why the disease has only been going north so suddenly. Southern Common Eider and other birds have been coming into contact with avian cholera for decades. Between 1998 and 2004 years there were three outbreaks in Utah’s Great Salt Lake that killed tens of thousands of birds.

The summer outbreaks in Nunavut have been much smaller in scale, but these deaths often wipe out a very large percentage of a colony’s numbers, especially in Southampton Island where the bacteria first appeared.

“One year they saw 200, the next 700 then something like 3,000 dead birds in a colony of 8,000,” he says. Researchers began to worry that the entire colony would be wiped out before the number of dead began to drop. Since then, Iverson and his team have been noticing a cyclical rise and fall in bird populations.

While the team has spent months around the dead Eider, find a new nesting pond that’s been destroyed by the bacteria can still be difficult to stomach.

“It’s really upsetting,” says Iverson. For once, his normally expressive hands sink to the sides of his armchair. He describes the scene like a mass grave. “Gulls have converged and they’re pulling carcasses off of nests and they’re eating the eggs and tearing them up.”

“The dispassionate side of you tries to focus on the fact that you’re studying…but you’re still confronted with it.”


Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.