Innovative research on eider ducks rewarded
|Heather Chaffey in the field
Biopsychology graduate student Heather Chaffey is the only recipient nationwide of a Northern Scientific Training Program Grant, funded by the department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for her innovative research on eider ducks.
Ms. Chaffey's research bridges the gap between the natural and social sciences by combining observational information from local hunters with scientific information from field work. Through this inter-disciplinary approach to research, she hopes to construct a more accurate profile of historical changes in eider duck populations and hunting practices on the south coast of Labrador.
As part of her research, Ms. Chaffey interviewed 20 hunters in various communities along the south coast of Labrador in order to learn how hunting practices have changed over time and how these changes may have affected populations of both the northern and southern subspecies of eider duck.
"I asked the hunters about nesting patterns, wintering areas, feeding areas, brood rearing areas and migration routes, and how these have changed over time," said Ms. Chaffey. "They gave me invaluable information on how local hunting practices are changing, and perhaps dying out."
To complement the information gained from interviews, she conducted scientific experiments to test some of her hypotheses regarding the northern and southern subspecies of eider ducks in the area roughly covering St. Lewis to Henley Harbour.
For example, she studied the size of the nesting population in St. Peter's Bay by counting the nests on all the islands in the bay. She then compared her findings over two field seasons to a study done in 1999, the only other existing count. She also conducted boat surveys, counting breeding male eiders near the nesting islands to determine if this less intrusive counting method was as effective as nest counting.
Yet another component of her research involves collecting hundreds of eider duck heads from hunters during the winter hunting season. By measuring eider duck bills, she can identify northern and southern subspecies of eider duck and then determine their ratio in the hunting regions. This subspecies ratio will be combined with her own visual observations of subspecies nesting in St. Peters Bay during the spring nesting season to give a more complete picture of the subspecies composition in the Common Eider population year round.
Ms. Chaffey is in the final stages of her thesis. So far, she has concluded that there are several major factors affecting the eider duck population on the south coast of Labrador. Hunters are much more efficient now because of semiautomatic guns and new modes of transport such as fiberglass speed boats and skidoos. The ground fishery moratorium has kept people from the headlands during the summer where illegal hunting often took place. Finally, resettlement has meant fewer, but larger communities, which has had the effect of moving the concentration of hunters to different areas.
This research will be the basis of her master's thesis, Integrating Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) and Scientific Knowledge about Common Eiders on the south coast of Labrador and is also part of the larger interdisciplinary research initiative, Coasts Under Stress. Her co-supervisors are Bill Montevecchi, Psychology, and Barbara Neis, Sociology.
The possibilities for the application of Ms. Chaffey's research are considerable and far-reaching. The significance of St. Peter's Bay as a migratory bird area may one day lead to it being declared conservation area or safe-guarded under some other form of wildlife protection.