The Little Auk harvest of
© Images and text by Carsten Egevang
Tiny size – huge numbers
The Little Auk Alle alle is a small, black and white seabird, which inhabits the most harsh and remote areas of the High-Arctic. What this seabird is lacking in body size and colours it compensates for by enormous numbers. The colonies of the Little Auk often exceed hundreds of thousands of individuals – in some places even millions. The Thule area in North Greenland is the core breeding distribution of the Little Auk with more than 80% of the world’s population. Here a unique form of seabird harvesting takes place and forms the ingredients of a special local dish - the Kiviaq.
Short window of harvesting
The Little Auk is only present in the High Arctic for a short time during summer. At this time, the locals exploit this resource and store birds for the winter.
An abundance of birds
The Little Auk breeds in only a 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 is the most numerous seabird species in the North Atlantic. This large number of birds can only be supported by an extremely high productivity of the marine environment – and this is what the North Water polynya provides. Local currents and wind systems keep certain sea areas ice free throughout winter the so-called polynyas. At the onset of spring biological productivity is many times higher than in the ice-covered areas. Trillions of tiny copepods – the principal prey species of the Little Auk - follow an extraordinary large bloom of ice algae and for a short period of time food is super-abundant.
The Little Auk is found in the Thule area in the northern part of Greenland where they come to breed during the short and hectic Arctic summer. The birds arrive from the southern winter quarters in May and leave again in September. During this period the colonies become alive with birds and the sky is painted black with the many birds. The large number of birds at the same place results in bird droppings in huge amount, which is added to the environment close to the colony. The fertilizing effect of bird excreta makes the surroundings of Little Auk colonies lush 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, Reindeer and Polar Hare are found close to Little Auk colonies.
Highly specialized food
The diet of the Little Auk consists of copepods, which are tiny crustaceans, only 5 mm long. The birds utilize the high production of the Arctic seas where a massive bloom of zooplankton occurs in spring.
Adaptation to small prey
To catch such small prey items and transport them back to the chick the birds need a specialized mouth. Numerous small hooks in the upper bill helps to hold the prey. The birds can store up to 4000 copepods under the tongue in a special pouch.
KIVIAQ - fermented Little Auk
The Little Auks have always been important to the local human inhabitants of Thule. It is likely that this small bird with a mass of only 150 grams has been critical to the survival in this harsh, unforgiving environment. But the enormous numbers of birds are only available to the Inuit for a limited period of the year. Preserving and storing the birds has been necessary to make the food last through times of hardship. The kiviaq is prepared by removing the bones and meat from a freshly shot Ringed seal Pusa hispida leaving the blubber attached to the skin. The seal is then stuffed with 300 to 500 Little Auks and stored in a pile of rocks for a period of 3 to 6 months. Under low temperatures the blubber of the seal ferments 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 seal blubber matures the bird flesh, giving it a ripe and strong taste.
Birds in the pot
Another, less time-consuming, way of preparing Little Auks is simply boiling them in a pot.
A matter of life and death!
In earlier times, the possibility of saving foods for periods of poor hunting, made a huge difference to survival. The Little Auk – stored as Kiviaq – has probably been the backbone for survival in these, one of the most harsh and hostile environment in the World.
Houses in the colony
In Savissivik, a small settlement in the Thule District, houses are located right at the edge of a Little Auk colony. These are placed on top of thousand years of moss Sphagnum deposits – fostered by the fertilizing effect of the near-by colony.
Not just for men
Hunting for food in Greenland is normally a man´s job. When it comes to harvesting Little Auks, women participate equally. The birds are caught in nets or the nests are entered by removing the boulders.
A true Arctic species!
The Little Auk is almost exclusively found in the HighArctic. More than 80% of the world population is found in the Thule Area.
Still important at present times
Today, hunting of Little Auks are still important in the Thule District. The birds are caught in the colonies using a pole net. Harvesting the birds is an activity in which everybody participates. Where most other types of hunting in Greenland are carried out by male hunters, Little Auk harvesting is carried out by both men and women – old, young and children. Nowadays most of the birds are eaten on cooking, but some are still used for making the traditional kiviaq. Today kiviaq is treasured not so much for storage, but is considered a delicacy saved for important celebrations such as confirmation, weddings and the Greenland National Day. It is a strong-tasting dish and the loose meat from the birds resembles a mixture of strong cheese and liquorice.
Siorapaluk with 40 inhabitants is the northernmost settlement in Greenland – even the northernmost settlement by indigenous peoples in the World. It is located in the Robertson Fjord where large Little Auk colonies are found in the vicinity.
Ringed seal hunting
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.