The Little Auk harvest of
© Images and text by Carsten Egevang
Tiny size – high numbers
The little auk is a tiny-sized, black and white seabird restricted to inhabit the most harsh and remote areas of the high-Arctic zone. But what the little auk is missing in body size and colorful plumage it compensates for with its enormous numbers of individuals at the breeding site. The colonies of the little auk often exceed hundreds of thousands – even millions in some places – individuals. The Thule area in North Greenland is the core distribution area of the little auk with more than 80 % of the world’s population is found here. Here a unique form of seabird harvesting takes place and a very special local dish - the Kiviaq – is prepared.
The little auk is only present in the high Arctic zone for a short amount of time in the summer time. During this time, locals exploit the seabird resource and store the birds for the winter.
The little auk only breeds few places in the Arctic. But where it is found, the number of birds in the colonies is often astonishing high.
Birds by the millions
The total population of little auks in the Thule area is estimated between 30 and 60 million pairs. This high number of birds can only be supported by an extremely high productivity in the marine environment – and this is what the North Water polynya provides. Local currents and wind systems keep the polynya ice free throughout the winter and by the onset of spring productivity is many times higher compared to ice covered areas. An extraordinary large bloom of ice algae is followed by trillions of tiny copepods – the principal prey species of the little auk - and for a short period of time food is abundant.
The little auk (Alle alle) is found in the Thule area in the northern part of Greenland during the short and hectic Arctic summer where they come to breed. The birds arrive from the southern winter quarters in May and leave again around September. In this period the colonies become alive with birds and the sky over the colony is painted black by the many birds. The high number of birds gathered in the same place results in high numbers of bird droppings added to the environment close to the colony. The fertilizing effect of bird excrea makes the surroundings of little auk colony appear lush and green in an otherwise barren and nutrient poor environment. This phenomenon is beneficial to the grass-eating Arctic mammals and often high densities of musk oxen, reindeers and polar hare are found close to little auk colonies.
The diet of the Little Auk consist of tiny copepods with a size of only 5 mm. The Little Auk utilizes the high production of the Arctic seas where the long winter is replaces a massive bloom in zooplankton in the Spring.
In order to catch such small prey items and transport them back to the chick the bird need a specialized mouth. In the upper bill small hook will help to hold the prey. The bird can store up to 4000 copepods under the tongue in a special pouch.
KIVIAQ - fermented Litlle Auk
The little auk has always been important to the local human inhabitants of Thule. It is likely that the small bird with a mass of only 150 gram has been the very core of survival in this harsh and unforgiving environment. But the enormous number of birds has only been available to the Inuit for a limited period of time during the year. Preserving and storing the little auks has been necessary in order to make the food last through scarce times with poor hunting. The kiviaq is prepared by removing the bones and meat from a freshly shot ringed seal (Pusa hispida) but leaving the blubber attached to the skin. The seal is then stuffed with 300 to 500 little auks and stored under a pile of rocks for a period of 3 to 6 months. Under low temperatures the blubber of the seal starts a fermentation giving a strong and ripe taste to the birds.
When the Little Auk has been stored inside a ringed seal for a couple of months, it is ready to be served. The blubber of the seal has matured the flesh of the bird, giving it a ripe and strong taste.
Another, less time-consuming, way of preparing Little Auks is simply by boiling them I a large pot.
A matter of life and death!
In the old days, the possibility of saving food to periods with poor hunting, have made a huge difference in survival. The Little Auk – stored as the Kiviaq – has probably been the backbone in survival in these, some of the most harsh and hostile environment in the World.
In Savissivik, a small settlement in the Thule District, houses are located right at the edge of a Little Auk colony. The houses are placed on top of thousand years of mosses (Sphagnum) deposits – fostered by the fertilizing effect of the close-by colony.
Hunting for food in Greenland is normally a mans job. When it comes to harvesting Little Auks women participate equally. The birds may be caught with nets or the nests can be some places be entered by removing the boulders.
A true Arctic species!
The Little Auk is almost exclusively found in the High-Arctic zone. More than 80% of the World population is found in the Thule Area.
Still important today
Today, hunting of the little auk is still important in the Thule District. The birds are caught in the colonies using a catcher (pole net). The harvesting of the little auk is an activity everybody participates in. Where most other hunting in Greenland is carried out by male hunters, little auk harvesting is done by both man and woman – old, young and children. Most of the birds today are eaten after cooking, but some are still used for making the traditional kiviaq. Today the kiviaq is treasured not so much for storage, but is considered a delicacy saved for important celebrations such as confirmation, weddings and the annual National Day. It is a strong tasting dish and the loose meat of the birds resembles a mixture of really strong cheese and liquorice.
Siorapaluk (40 inhabitants) is the northernmost settlement in Greenland – and the northernmost settlement in the World. It is located in the Robertson Fjord with large Little Auk colonies close by.
Although it is well into the breeding season of the little auks the interior parts of the fjords are still ice-covered. A ringed seal resting on the ice is shot for Kiviaq – little auks stored inside a seal.
The photo reportage “Little Auk harvest in Thule” is part of the project Seabird Harvest in the North Atlantic. Images included in the reportage are the result of several visits by Carsten Egevang to the Thule area between 2011 and 2015. A warm “qujanaq” goes to the hospitable people of Siorapaluk and Savissivik.