Arctic Birds: a Long List of Often-Unknown Names
Arctic wildlife exists in a category unto itself, and for good reason. Polar bears are one of the most awe-inspiring animals on Earth, Arctic foxes one of the most photogenic, and as for blue whales, it’s humbling just to know something that big even exists. But often the avian life of the circumpolar north gets overlooked in favor of its larger (and less winged) neighbors. To offset this imbalance, here are 22 fascinating facts about the unsung heroes of the polar world: the Arctic birds.
Every class needs its clown, and puffins certainly show devotion to that role. Even so, there’s also a mark of piety in their plumage: Though these Arctic birds are called “sea clowns” for their bright facial coloring, they are also known as “little brothers of the north” for the black and white hues of their bodies – which many people think resemble the garments of certain religious orders.
There’s no comeback for being called a living fish hook, since the term (as far as we know) doesn’t really exist. And this Arctic bird might want to keep it that way: There was a time when Chinese, Japanese, Grecian, and Macedonian fisherman would tie a loop around a cormorant’s throat, allowing it only room enough to eat smaller fish, while larger fish remained trapped in its bill. The fisherman would then cherry-pick these larger fish. Life isn’t fair, but apparently that goes double for cormorants.
By Charlesjsharp via Wikimedia Commons
3. Arctic tern
No moss grows on this Arctic bird’s wings. One of the most far-ranging fliers in the world, Arctic terns travel an estimated 2.4 million km (1.49 million miles) in their lifetimes. Their migratory patterns are so ambitious, in fact, that they get to enjoy two summers per year. Because of this, you may very well see these Arctic birds during a trip to Greenland and then turn around and see the same birds on an Antarctica cruise the following season. Next time one of your friends claims to be a true sun worshipper, tell them about the Arctic tern.
4. White-Tailed Eagle
The Arctic has several species of sea eagle, all beautiful and worthy of reverence. White-tailed eagles, however, are among the most distinctive: They are the largest in Europe, have the widest wingspan of any eagle on the planet, and have no natural predators (other than humans). These Arctic birds are closely related to bald eagles, and indeed hold the same ecological niche in Eurasia that bald eagles hold in North America. Not surprisingly, then, white-tailed eagles are featured on Germany’s coat-of-arms just as bald eagles are featured on American currency.
By Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons
It should come as no shock that the Arctic bird seen most on the standard Arctic cruise is also the most abundant gull on Earth. Kittiwakes get their name from their own repetitious cry. They are often seen calling out from the cliffsides, where their young are usually safe from predators as long as they don’t fall out of the nest. Indeed, kittiwakes are the planet’s only gull-like birds to nest on the sides of cliffs. Sometimes it pays not to be scared of heights.
Though there’s no accounting for taste, the ancient Norse certainly had no kind words for these oil-excreting Arctic birds: Their name for them, fulmar, translates to “foul gull.” This title refers to the animal’s pungent stomach oil, a spray that can be used as a defense mechanism or energy source for their young – or themselves, during long flights. But despite how smelly they can be, these birds are equipped with a keen olfactory sense. Nature loves its little ironies.
7. Snow Bunting
Some Arctic birds are fierce, some fleet, and some are nicknamed “snowflake.” Even with its rather cutesy callsign, snow buntings are sturdy survivors: They are the northernmost breeder among land-based birds, inhabiting any patch of tundra (called nunataqs in Inuit) not coated in ice. They are also not picky when it comes to propagating their species, quite content to cross-breed with Beringian McKay’s buntings in Alaska when they find themselves short of fellow snow buntings.
8. King Eider
Not only are king eiders the largest sea ducks in the Northern Hemisphere, they also have a particularly expansive range. This might explain their Latin name, Spectabilis, meaning “remarkable display,” but actually it refers to the vibrant plumage of the males. Regardless of their regal status, these birds of the Arctic are true ducks of the people: They don’t shirk from breeding with common eiders, and they are known to form flocks up to 100,000 strong. Charlemagne’s army was scarcely so large.
9. Northern Gannet
Not all of us have mastered the art of walking yet, and some of us never will – unless it’s on water. Northern gannets fall into this category, finding it easier to achieve lift-off from a watery surface than a dry one. These Arctic birds are nevertheless efficient, born with small air bags under their skin that protect them during their high-impact dives as well as help them resurface. They are also accomplished travelers, living as far south as Ecuador. Lastly, they like to eat: The word “gannet” is a substitute for “glutton” in the UK.
10. Pink-Footed Goose
The most common goose in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, the pink-footed goose unfortunately leaves a large carbon footprint by releasing gas from the ground while digging for food. Pink-footed geese are Svalbard’s largest nesting goose, and due to their size are better able to protect their young from Arctic foxes than other geese. This enables these Arctic birds to nest farther inland, proof that size and number raise the bargaining power for real estate in the bird world too.
11. Glaucous Gull
The only large gull found in the farthest reaches of the north, groups of this Arctic bird are known by many creative names: squabbles, screeches, scavengings, gulleries. This is not surprising, as they are confirmed scavengers and known to raid nesting colonies in search of eggs and chicks. They will also hover above humans and foxes, hoping a distraction will enable them to snatch up their prey without interference. If a glaucous gull ran a poker table, you wouldn’t want to double down.
12. Black Guillemot
One of the more stylish Arctic birds, black guillemots are known to change their colors to match their environments: The farther north a guillemot is found, the whiter its plumage will be. They’re also highly particular about how they hold fish in their beaks. This trait is as yet unexplained, though some scientists think it is somehow related to where they like to hunt.
13. Little Auk
Just as kittiwakes are the most common Arctic bird seen in the far north at large, little auks are the bird you will see the most during a Svalbard cruise. Their colonies, which sometimes number into the millions, are the largest of all the auk species. The sheer size of little auk populations actually has a significant impact on their breeding grounds, as their carpet of droppings provides a nutrient-rich fertilizer that allows plant life to grow in what would otherwise be barren space.
14. Ivory Gull
Tapering off in population since the 1980s, ivory gulls are sadly estimated to have lost as much as 85% of their population in Canada alone. These Arctic birds are pellet-casters, producing small pellets out of the animals they eat, then spitting them back up after they’re done. (Try that at your next dinner party.) Their eggs have the highest concentrations of DDT and PCB of any bird on Earth.
15. Arctic skua
These Arctic birds give new meaning to the term “five-finger discount.” Known for their skill at thievery, Arctic skuas are thought to support up to 95% of their winter diet by stealing. Not only that, these birds like to add a little injury to their insults, roughing up the birds they intend to steal from in order to get them to drop the food they’re bringing home. Scientists speculate that the white streaks on Arctic skua wings are meant to ward off other Arctic skuas that are out to steal.
Known as “rock ptarmigans” outside of the UK and Canada, these grouse relatives go by many other names worldwide: The Japanese call them “thunder birds,” the Greeks call them “hare feet,” they are known as “croakers” in Gaelic, and in America this Arctic bird sometimes goes by “snow chicken.” The males are known for their croaking song, just like some members of our own species.
17. Great Northern Diver
“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not,” says the famous green sage to his Jedi apprentice in Star Wars. Well, how about 20 million years old? That’s how long the great northern diver has been with us. Thought to be the oldest and most primitive type of bird on Earth, great northern divers are different than most birds in that some of their bones are solid rather than hollow. This gives them helpful weight when they dive, though it also impedes them when they try to take to flight. Some Arctic birds, however, are at least as comfortable on the water as in the air.
18. Grey Phalarope
To prove the above point: Grey phalaropes are wading birds most of the year, and during the winter tend to spend their time on the open ocean. Their entire migratory route is also over the ocean, which is not the case for the two other types of phalarope. Grey phalaropes like to eat lice off the backs of whales, and are commonly associated with beluga, orca, and sperm whales. They also have a rather unusual breeding ritual: After breeding, the female migrates south and leaves the male behind to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks. Even more atypically, the female is bright and colorful while the stay-at-home dad is less vibrant. Arctic birds can be progressive too.
19. Barnacle Goose
It isn’t every day you earn a reputation for being birthed from barnacles, but that’s exactly what this Arctic bird did. It bears noting, however, that this reputation was cemented in the Middle Ages, when most of the Western world was certain that the Earth was the center of the universe and beer was safer to drink than water – though this was true, and many modern people still believe it. Barnacle geese were also thought to come from driftwood, and for this reason some Irish clerics permitted its meat to be eaten during Catholic fasting days. Pope Innocent III did not share their view, putting an end to this practice in 1215.
20. Long-Tailed Skua
The smallest of the skua family but certainly not the least aggressive, these Arctic birds are known to make other birds drop their food by harassing them until they give it up. (In this way, long-tailed skuas are much like their Arctic skua relatives.) During the breeding season, long-tailed skuas get even more warlike: They hunt local rodent populations, swooping down on their prey and pecking them to death. Not the most humanitarian means of “pest” control.
21. Brünnich’s Guillemot
No bird expends more energy in flight than a Brünnich’s guillemot, and while that’s hardly worth boasting about, this Arctic bird makes up in numbers what it lacks in flight efficiency: It is among the most numerous avian species in the Northern Hemisphere. Brünnich’s guillemots are also tough divers, plunging to depths of up to 150 meters (500 feet) and staying underwater for upward of four minutes. Biologists think these birds absorb gasses into their bones that they release into their bodies during a dive, preventing diving sickness and lung collapse.
Last listed but certainly not least loved, turnstones are one of the migratory marvels of the Arctic bird world: They have been known to fly over 1,000 km (600 miles) in a single day, 27,000 km (16,700 miles) in a year, and 500,000 km (310,000 miles) over the course of their entire lives. Turnstones also live so far north that scientists have rarely been able to study how they breed, though they do know that these sandpiper relatives have the habit of lowering their tails and hunching their backs when ready for a fight. When you travel as much as a turnstone, it’s important to stand your ground.
One Last Tip for the True Arctic Bird Lover
Seeing Arctic birds on a screen is only a preamble to seeing them in real life. If your interest has been sufficiently stoked, there are multiple bird watching tours that will grant you a striking firsthand view of these remarkable avian creatures.