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SEWARD - Only a few weeks after 12 young spectacled eiders settled into their new aviary at the Alaska SeaLife Center, researchers tossed them a pair of colored ping-pong balls.
Would they shy away? Pick one color over another?
To the astonishment of the biologists, the six male and six female adolescents scrambled around the tanks, splashing and batting, struggling to knock the balls into the drain.
"It was a game with all sorts of rules that they made up," said the center's new avian curator, Heidi Weingartz, a bird expert who moved to Alaska from South Africa.
Spectacled eiders are disappearing across their Alaska nesting grounds, for unknown reasons, and have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1993.
The eiders at SeaLife, born in captivity last year, have surprised their human caretakers since they arrived in Seward in January. They yank on kelp and play with toys. When the aviculture crew cleans their tanks, the birds waddle close to check out the action.
When a dozen Steller's eiders, a related and equally threatened species, arrived at their own aviary a few yards away last month, the spectacled birds lined up in a row, craning their necks to see the new neighbors.
Such glimpses into the personalities of 24 individual sea ducks mark the beginning of an ambitious investigation. With nearly $1.3 million in federal money, the SeaLife Center eider program plans to conduct years of studies into behavior, physiology, reproduction, health and diseases of the birds, coordinating with field work already underway by various agencies.
Last year, the center built a 1,500-square-foot enclosure with nine pools for the birds. With their arrival this spring, the center became the only facility in the world researching and breeding spectacled eiders in captivity and the first program to try to raise Steller's eiders.
The goal is to help determine what is driving the state's spectacled and Steller's eiders toward local extinction - and how people can stop the slide.
Like other eiders, these two species are large-bodied ducks at home in the swells and frigid chop of the sea. They were once common nesters in western Alaska and the North Slope. But from the 1970s to the 1990s, the number of spectacled eiders on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta crashed from more than 48,000 pairs to just 2,500 pairs.
Over the same period, the number of Steller's eiders may have dropped by 50 percent, with an average of 1,100 birds estimated to nest on the North Slope each summer over the past 14 years.