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People of a Feather: eider ducks on film

Patty Osborne

At the start of Joel Heath's film, People of a Feather, an Innuit woman describes how, on a hunting trip, her father told her to "listen for the thunder" and soon the sky darkened and the thunder started and her father said "the eiders are coming."

For centuries, eider ducks provided the people who live on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay with eggs, meat and clothing (they sewed the skins, with feathers intact, into clothing) and now provide them with down that they use to stuff their modern parkas (they collect down from the eiders' nests, always leaving enough so that the nests remain intact).

When the people of the community of Sanikiluaq noticed that the population of eider ducks was getting smaller and smaller, they asked for a scientific study and they got Joel Heath, a PhD student who, in 2002, took his underwater camera up north where he spent months sitting inside a tiny plywood hut studying the winter activities of the ducks as they sought out open water at the edge of the ocean and dove to the sea bottom to forage for sea urchins and mussels. Heath's underwater coverage of the ducks swimming vigourously down through the waterand putting their wings back and shooting back up to the top is unforgettable.

Heath returned to Sanikiluaq year after year and eventually made this film which includes reenactments of traditional hunting methods and shows us modern Innuit life (yes, there's a neighbourhood rap group) and the modern phenomenon of the deaths of many eider ducks who, due to the now unpredictable ice cover, end up in smaller and smaller areas of open water fighting for less and less accessible food sources. The underwater camera does not allow us to turn away from the sight of starving ducks that are too weak to swim down to the sea bottom but who die struggling to do just that.

The scientific explanation for the plight of the eider ducks is that ice unpredictability is caused not only by global warming but also by the fact that in summer, when demand for electricity is low, hydroelectric projects store water behind their dams and in winter, when the demand for electricity is high, they release the warm water over the dams and into the sea. This not only warms the sea water when it should be getting colder but it adds a huge amount of fresh water to the salt ocean and fresh water ice is more brittle than salt water ice. The movie version of this problem is both beautiful and moving.

There's a trailer here.

The movie is at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal until May 4, then in Waterloo, Ontario from May 6 to 10.

For an interview with Joel Heath, visit articamag.ca.

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