Harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) life-history characteristics make their populations particularly vulnerable to perturbations during nonbreeding periods. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was a major perturbation to nonbreeding habitats of harlequin ducks in Prince William Sound, Alaska, which resulted in population injury. To assess the status of population recovery from the oil spill and to evaluate factors potentially constraining full recovery, we used radiotelemetry to examine survival of adult female harlequin ducks during winters of 1995-96, 1996-97, and 1997-98. We implanted 294 harlequin ducks (154 and 140 in oiled and unoiled areas, respectively) with transmitters and tracked their signals from aircraft during October through March. We examined variation in survival rates relative to area and season (early, mid, and late winter) through comparisons of models using Akaike's information criterion (AIC(c)) values. The 3 models best supported by the data indicated that survival of birds in oiled areas was lower than in unoiled areas. Inclusion of standardized body mass during wing molt in the 3 best models did not improve their fit, indicating that body mass during wing molt did not affect subsequent winter survival. In the model that best fit our data, survival was high in early winter for both areas, lower during mid and late winter seasons, and lowest in oiled areas during mid winter. Cumulative winter survival estimated from this model was 78.0% (SE = 3.3%) in oiled areas and 83.7% (SE = 2.9%) in unoiled areas. We determined that area differences in survival were more likely related to oiling history than intrinsic geographic differences. Based on a demographic model, area differences in survival offer a likely mechanism for observed declines in populations on oiled areas. Concurrent studies indicated that harlequin ducks continued to be exposed to residual Exxon Valdez oil as much as 9 years after the spill. We suggest that oil exposure, mortality, and population dynamics were linked and conclude that continued effects of the oil spill likely restricted recovery of harlequin duck populations through at least 1998.
Additional publication details
Winter survival of adult female harlequin ducks in relation to history of contamination by the Exxon Valdez oil spill