Waterfowl Research

Science Center Objects

Scientists at the USGS Alaska Science Center have conducted research on waterfowl species (ducks, geese, and swans) in Alaska since the 1970s. Because Alaska is an international crossroads of migratory bird flyways, with millions of birds from Asia and North America breeding in Alaska each summer, USGS research has also taken place in adjacent countries (Russia, Japan, Canada, Mexico) and in the lower 48-states and Hawaii.

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The main objectives of the USGS Alaska Science Center waterfowl research program are to:

  • Identify and fill gaps in our knowledge about the ecology of waterfowl species in Alaska
  • Quantify the drivers of population trends of waterfowl populations in Alaska and throughout their annual cycle
  • Provide science information to Department of Interior management agencies and others for decision making regarding waterfowl disease, population delineation, and species of conservation concern
Snow Goose near the Colville River, northern Alaska

Snow Goose near the Colville River, northern Alaska​​​​​​.​(Credit: Ryan Askren, USGS. Public domain.)

Waterfowl Research by Species

Drivers of Population Trends

Each year, management agencies conduct aerial surveys of waterfowl populations across Alaska and the rest of North America to document annual changes in the numbers of breeding and wintering waterfowl. These surveys yield long-term data sets of population change, but often the drivers of increases and decreases in population size are unknown. The USGS Alaska Science Center waterfowl research program aims to understand drivers of population trends to inform the annual changes in waterfowl populations observed during aerial surveys. Our research examines both landscape and species level processes driving population trends.

Disease and Contaminants

Waterfowl are common reservoirs for a variety of avian diseases and can suffer significant mortality from certain pathogens. Additionally, waterfowl are exposed to naturally occurring and human sources of contaminants. Research at the USGS Alaska Science Center on disease and contaminants in waterfowl strengthens the efficiency and effectiveness of disease surveillance across North America. Results from research also provides information on existing and emerging threats to waterfowl populations and to the humans that rely on these species for subsistence and sport harvest. The USGS Alaska Science Center uses field and laboratory investigations, genetic and band-recovery to: identify sources and impacts of disease and contaminants, identify routes of spread based on migration patterns, and to identify priority areas for future sampling of contaminants and surveillance for disease.

Population Delineation

To understand causes for changes in the status and trends of waterfowl species, we must often first determine if a group of birds are composed of one or multiple populations. For example, if birds breeding in one area spend the winter in multiple areas – each with their own unique conditions – then the status of the breeding area is driven by all of those wintering conditions. Also, if a species is distributed across all of North America, knowing how many different populations are within that broad distribution helps to track, understand and manage changes in overall population size. To determine levels of migratory connectivity between breeding and wintering areas and to delineate species and populations, the USGS Alaska Science Center uses genetic data, body measurements (morphology), satellite telemetry, and band-recovery information to determine where population boundaries exist.

Threatened and Endangered Species

There are two waterfowl species in Alaska that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Spectacled eider was listed as threatened in 1993 and the Steller’s eider was listed as threatened in 1999. USGS Alaska Science Center has been involved in the Recovery Team since the species were listing to provide science information for recovery planning efforts. Research has focused on filling gaps in our knowledge of these species (migration, nesting and wintering ecology, contaminants, and demography).

Northern Pintail Duck on snow covered ground

Northern Pintail Duck male on snow covered ground.
​​​​​​​(Credit: Brian Guzetti, USGS. Public domain.)