Breeding in high-arctic areas of the northern Atlantic ocean, the Dovekie is both small in size and abundant in number. Population estimates for the western Atlantic range into the tens of millions of birds. Inuit natives long relied on Dovekies to provide food and used them for making clothing.
Dovekies are thought to begin breeding at two or three years of age. Winter storms can at times cause large scale mortality in Dovekies by making prey inaccessible. On breeding colonies, large gulls sometimes prey on nestlings.
Description of the Dovekie
Bent Life History of the Dovekie
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Dovekie – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ALLE ALLE (Linnaeus)
Although not so strictly confined to the Arctic Ocean in winter as Ross’s gull there is no more characteristic bird of the Arctic regions than the “little auk,” which swarms as abundantly, on the Atlantic side of this continent, as the various auklets do in Bering Sea. It winters much farther south than the little auklets, but it returns to its summer home at remarkably early dates, as soon as it can push northward into the forbidden regions of ice and snow, a hardy little Arctic explorer that loves those inhospitable shores. It penetrates as far north as 820 and has been found breeding up to the seventy eighth parallel of latitude, probably farther north than any other species regularly breeds.
Spring: Mr. William Eagle Clarke (1898), writing of the migration of this species on Franz Josef Land, says:
It arrived at Frederick Jackson Island In 1896 on the 25th of February, as related by Doctor Nansen. On the 10th of March Doctor Nansen mentions that “millions” were seen flying up the sound at 6 a. in., and “when we went out at 2 in the afternoon there was an unceasing passage of flock after flock out to sea, and this continued until late in the afternoon.” On the 17th of March they were in plenty at the Gully Rocks, and, as far as could be seen they were all in full summer plumage. They continually occupied and deserted their breeding-cliffs during April, May, and early June. After the 10th of June the little auks were seen on the rocks every day during our stay. They bred in the cliffs, at both east and west ends, at Cape Flora In great numbers, though most plentifully in the Gully Rocks.
The approach of the Arctic spring and the arrival of the birds is well portrayed by Dr. I. I. Hayes (1867) as follows:
The snow had mainly disappeared from the valley, and, although no flowers had yet appeared, the early vegetation was covering the banks with green, and the feeble growths opened their little leaves almost under the very snow, and stood alive and fresh In the frozen turf, looking as glad of the spring as their more ambitious cousins of the warm south. Gushing rivulets and fantastic waterfalls mingled their pleasant music with the ceaseless hum of birds, myriads of which sat upon the rocks of the hillside, or were perched upon the cliffs, or sailed through the air in swarms so thick that they seemed like a cloud passing before the sun. These birds were the hitherto mentioned little auk, and are a waterfowl not larger than a quail. The swift flutter of their wings and their constant cry filled the air with a roar like that of a storm advancing among the forest trees. The valley was glowing with the sunlight of the early morning, which streamed In over the glacier, and robed hill, mountain, and plain In brightness.
Nearly all Arctic explorers have referred to the astonishing abundance of the little “rotche.” as this species is called, on its breeding grounds. The following two quotations by Morris (1903) will serve as illustrations:
Captain Beechey says:
They are so numerous that we have often seen an uninterrupted line of them extending full haifivay over the bay, or to a distance of more than 3 miles. This column, on the average, might have been about 6 yards broad and as many deep. There must have been nearly four millions of birds on the wing at one time.
The incredible numbers of this species that have been seen by voyagers, on the surface of the northern seas, are very remarkable; it is said that they cover the surface of the water, and the floating masses of ice as far as the eye can discern, and when they take flight they actually darken the sky.
Nesting: Mr. W. Elmer Ekblaw contributes the following excellent account of the nesting habits of the dovekie:
The nesting sites are determined probably by several factors, perhaps of equal significance. These sites are always along cliffs with rather steep talus slopes, of rather large fragments, among which the birds can find entrances, and cavities well enough within shelter to be safe from winds and weather and predatory animals. In suitable talus slopes its nests extend from near the high tide water mark to the top of the slope, in every possible place. Because of the slow disintegration of the rocks, as compared with the breaking off of the fragments from the cliffs, the talus slopes are piles of coarse rocks with cavities, passages, crevices, and tunnels everywhere among them. In these cavities and passages at various distances from the outside, according to the convenience and safety of the place, the nests are placed. Frequently a mat of grass grows over the surface of the rocks, but since it is only a superficial mat, and as long as openings are left for the ingress of the birds, this does not detract in the least from the desirability of the site. Along Foulke Fjord, on the cliffs south of Cape Alexander, and near Sonntag Bay I have found thousands nesting on what was apparently only a grass slope with an occasional projecting rock, but examination revealed the fact that it was only a concealed talus slope after all. Where the breaking down of the cliff above, or where there is considerable rolling of the surface rocks, the grass does not form, though upon the margins of the talus tongues, and In a semicircle about their terminations when they do not reach the sea the grass mat encroaches. In a few cases the grass mat has so deeply covered the talus that the aukiets have abandoned it, because they could not enter. Not only in the talus piles does the dovekie nest, but also in crevices: almost without exception in horizontal crevices: it makes its home as ~vell; but this only when talus slopes near at hand have nests too, for this little bird is most socially inclined, nesting, feeding, swimming, flying, and migrating in great gregarious flocks.
It builds no nest Its one egg, or rarely two, is laid on a rock or shelf in a passageway or cavity, usually in a niche along, or at the end of, a passageway. This rock, after many generations of auks have nested there, is covered with more or less damp dung, upon which the egg or eggs are laid. Several nests may be very close together, or considerable interval may occur between a nest and its neighbor. The entrance to a nest is usually marked by a white patch on the rock, where more than the usual amount of dung is deposited, for whenever one of the old birds alights at the entrance, he, or she, almost invariably defecates. The earliest eggs are laid In the last week of June, but it is during the first week of July that laying is at its height, at Etab. In the last week in June the Eskimo women begin gathering the eggs, but they are not so plentiful as they become a week later. Each female lays one egg and this is the usual number. Rarely two eggs are laid, and In four cases of this that I saw the eggs were slightly smaller than the normal egg.
Eggs: The single egg is “ovate” or pointed ovate in shape. Its shell is smooth but without luster. All the eggs that I have seen are plain bluish white and immaculate; I have never seen any of the alleged spotted eggs of this species. The measurements of 44 eggs, lfl various collections, average 48.2 by 33 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 51 by 34, 49 by 35.5, 45 by 33, and 46 by 32 millimeters.
Mr. Ekblaw says:
The eggs are quite uniform in size, and also in color. Most of them are a pale blue, the blue being but a tinge. From this pale blue type they vary in both directions slightly, to quite white and to pale robin-egg blues. However, most of the eggs are a typical pale-blue color. Though not a precocial bird the dovekie lays an abnormally large egg, so large, in fact, in proportion to the size of the bird that the mother couid with difficulty and little success keep more than one egg warm. The shell of the egg is so thick that the inside must be cooled slowly when the old birds leave the nest. I can not state that the male takes part in the incubation, but I have seen whichever bird it is that is not on the eggs, come to the entrance of the nest and enter with his pouch distended with food, in the same manner as it is inter when the young are being fed, so I presume that the food is for the incubating bird, male or female. The eggs do not always mature. I have found many that had spoiled and not hatched. Some of these were probably old eggs of former years, but about 1 egg in 10 was spoiled.
Young: The young begin hatching about the middle of July, and from then almost until the last week in August some are being hatched, though the most of them hatch about the middle of August, or a little before. They at once become voraciously hungry, and tax the energies of both parents to satisfy them, even though the day be 24 hours light The young birds, as soon as they hear any noise outside the entrance, set up an impatient shrill chirping, which continues until the old bird feeds them by disgorging into their bills the contents of its well-filled pouch. The consoling, soothing murmur of the old bird to the young, and the satisfied chirping of the young shows how solicitous the one is, and how grateful the other. The birds of adjacent nests often leave and arrive together; when they come with a great rush of wings, they usually alight together in a group on some prominent large rock near their nests, and thea after a survey of the vicinity, hop or fly to their respective entrances. Before leaving, they gather together similarly.
The first birds come off the nest about the middle of August, and the last not until the last of the month, so that the latest departures from the nesting Uites are those retarded by their belated young. Thus after the great number are gone south, a few still remain a few days: these belated young and their parents. On August 24, 1915, when I went up on the slopes along the fjord to collect young and old birds for the winter’s food, the birds had already begun leaving, so that the number was noticeably diminished. The departure continued constantly through the day, great flocks rising over the south cliffs and passing out of sight southward. The following day the most of those remaining left, and this was the day of the greatest exodus. On the 25th we found most of the young gone, though a number remained, and of these several had not yet developed the wing feathers needed for their flight, and could not leave for at least a week or 10 days yet. Many of the young were leaving the nest. Apparently when they are sufficiently developed they emerge from their nest and impelled by an instinctive impulse essay the first flight; I could not see that any coaxing was resorted to by the older birds. The young bird waddled awkwardly about the rocks, watched not only by his own parents but by all the old birds as well. From time to time he would stretch and flap his wings, and then finally when those about him rose in flight he, too, took to his wings. He quickly fell behind the most; but at least one, sometimes two, old birds stuck by him. His flight was awkward, and he could easily be distinguished in his erratic course, from the old birds. Some of the weaker ones returned soon to the rocks or sank to the ~vater to rest, but the stronger apparently sailed away out of sight.
Plumages: Ridgway (1887) describes the downy young as “uniform sooty slate color, paler or more grayish below.” The juvenal plumage soon appears and is practically complete before the young bird leaves the nest, the last of the down disappearing on the chest, belly, and rump. Strangely enough, the juvenal plumage is similar, in color pattern, to the nuptial plumage and entirely unlike that of the first winter; the entire head, neck, and throat are “clove brown ;” the upper parts are similar, but blacker, and the lower parts are white. Within a few weeks, before the end of September, the young bird prepares for its fall migration by a complete molt of the body plumage, producting the first winter plumage, much thicker and of firmer texture. This plumage is very much like the adult winter plumage, but the upper parts are duller and browner, and the bill is smaller and weaker. At the first prenuptial molt young birds become practically indistinguishable from adults.
Adults have a partial prenuptial molt late in the winter or very early in the spring and a complete postnuptial molt in August and September. The clear, glossy black back is characteristic of the winter adult.
Food: Mr. Ekblaw writes to me:
The food of the young dovekies is largely made up of the so-called “shrimps” (Schizopoda-Mvris?) so numerous in Arctic waters, and the so-called “blackberries,” the little black “arthropods” that are numerous in the ~vater too. I think it is this latter food that gives rise to the pink and lavender dung of the dovekie. The intervals at which the young are fed varies, but they are usually measured by hours, though when food does come it is in quantity.
The food of the adult bird is probably the same as that of the young while in their summer home. This food It obtains in the sea, usually most easily, apparently in certain currents, or about headlands, Ice pans, or icebergs. Before the nesting period begins, the bird spends long periods in the water offshore. It travels considerable distances after food, those at Etah going at least as far as Cairn Point and Force Bay to the northward.
Audubon (1840) found in the stomachs of dovekies “shrimps and other crustacea and particles of seaweed.” Nuttall (1834) mentions marine insects and a small species of crab as included in their fdod. According to Yarrell (1871). Major Feilden’s notes state:
During the breeding season the pouch-like enlargement of the cheeks give them a singular appearance. The contents of the cheeks is a reddish-colored substance, which on closer examination is found to consist of immense numbers of minute crustacen. The adaptation of the mouth in this species as a receptacle for the food required for their young does not appear to have attracted much attention among naturalists; and yet a little consideration would have shown that some such arrangement must be required. ~Vith fish feeders, such as Alca, Uria, and Frafercula, no difficulty arises in transporting food to their young; but in the case of Mergulua alle, which, I believe, subsists entirely on minute crustacea, the bill is manifestly incapable of conveying the requisite amount of food, especially as very often the breeding places of the little auk are found inland, at considerable distances from the sea.
Mr. William Brewster (1906) writes that the stomachs of several killed on Fresh Pond, Cambridge, Massachusetts, were “filled with the remains of young alewives,” which abounded in the pond.
Behavior: Mr. Ekblaw says of the behavior of the dovekie:
Like the murre and the guillemot, the dovekie floats either high or low in the water, and dives more easily from the lower position. They dive very quickly, and remain submerged for some little time. Observations of approximately 761 birds in 51 groups gave an average of 33 seconds for submergence, when frightened by the appronch of the steamer off Cape Walsingham, August 11, 1913. The maximum time of submergence was 68 seconds. The dovekie, like the murre and guillemot, uses his wings as well as his feet in diving, veritably flying through the water. On the dive it tips down as it goes under, just like a “bobber” on a country boy’s fish line, and then starts down at an angle of from 450 to 600, only its little white tail visible, like a white bubble sinking fast into the depths.
The flight of the auklet suggests in the wing movements, at least, that of the chimney swifts. It is a good strong flier when the expanse of wing surface in respect to the weight of the bird is considered, but it does not fly nearly so swiftly as the guillemot or murre, and in direct flight can not escape from its enemies, the great burgomaster gull or the gyrfalcon. I have several times seen the burgomaster gull far behind a flock of dovekies start in pursuit, and though the little birds exerted themselves to the utmost to escape, the big gull in a few movements overtook them, scattering them. The victim he singled out then found his only hope of escaping in dodging his pursuer and taking refuge in the water or among rocks. Likewise I have seen guillemots take wing with the dovekies and soon distance them. The dovekie has a habit of stooping from a considerable height at a very steep gradient, like a hawk stooping to his prey, and at this time, the descent is meteoric in noise and speed. At such a time, if one happens to be standing at the base of its descent or near it, he receives an impression of great speed, undoubtedly more or less correct, for the impetus of their rapid descent must give a high velocity. On straight flying, however, the flight is not out of the ordinary: quite what one would expect from a bird with such relation of weight to wing expanse.
Morris (1903) says, of its vocal powers:
The note of this interesting little bird is a pretty chirrup or pipe, partly plaintive and partly lively; it resembles the syllables “try” and “eye” frequently repeated, especially when engaged with the nest.
The note has also been likened to the syllables “able.”
The important place which the dovekie fills in maintaining the balance of life in the far north is well shown in the following observations by Mr. Ekblaw:
The dovekie is preeminently a social bird. Its vast colonies on these northwest Greenland shores form one of the most striking features of the coast and play an important part in the ecology and human economy of the region. They furnish the food for the many foxes of this region; without these birds the foxes would be so few that the natives could not secure adequate clothing and these “Arctic Highianders” could not have persisted here as the most northern people of the world. No trading station would have been established by the Danes; one of the chief incentives to some of Peary’s and other expeditions of the coast would have been missing. The grass slopes about the rookeries, the luxuriant herbage being due to their dung, support the largest numbers of hare and ptarmigan, and probably afforded the richest pastures for the caribou before the introduction of firearms effected their extermination from some of the areas along the coast. The burgoinaster gull and the gyrfalcon feed upon the dovekie throughout the summer and rear their young upon them too. The fox, burgomaster gull, and gyrfalcon are the chief natural enemies of the dovekie; in additon, the Eskimo, the raven, and perhaps some of the water animals prey upon the birdlets; the whitewbale, so the Eskimo say, catches and eats many.
The fox preys not only upon the bird but upon the eggs as well. Through the nesting season and while the young are growing the foxes frequent the talus slopes, gorging themselves and laying in their winter stores. Lurking behind a rock until a flock alights near and then rushing upon the birds, stealthily creeping upon a flock and pouncing upon them, or crawling into the holes after them: in one way or another the fox gets all he wants. And the auklets recognize him as an enemy, for at his approach, if they detect him, they are off in confusion and haste.
The most terrible and persistent of the dovekie’s enemies is the burgomaster gull, for the only refuge from him is a hole in the rocks. Even the swift gyrfalcon that pursues them relentlessly in the air is not so inexorable, for from him they can escape in the water. When a burgomnster singles out a dovekie as his prey the only hope for the auklet is to escape into a hole in the rocks, or by a quick dash into a flock succeed in diverting the pursuit to some other luckless dovekie. The burgomaster displays much agility and skill in following up the evolutions of the frightened dovekie, and often catches him on the wing. When the dovekie dives into the water the burgomaster hovers over him like an aeroplane over a submarine, following his underwater course, and the moment he comes up striking at him to force him under without a chance for rest or breath, repeating this until the little fellow is exhaused, when his big tormentor seizes him and makes a meal of him in a single gulp. The dovekies live in deadly terror of the gull and gyrfalcon, and whenever one of these big birds sails along the cliffs it is the signal for a panic-stricken flight of the dovekies. The raven is not so feared because not so greedy, and because he likes a varied diet, and does not bother them so much. Teedlylngwah, a rellable Eskimo, says he has seen white whales catch many doveIdes and eat them, and that he has found the whole birds in the stomachs of the whale.
The importance of the dovekie as a food bird to the Eskimos of northern Greenland is well illustrated by the following quotation from Mr. Figgins’s (1899) notes:
To me the dovekie was the most interesting as well as the most numerous bird observed, and it is surprising that they survive the persecution to which they are subjected. During years when game is scarce, the natives depend almost entirely on the dovekie for food, and they are caught by the thousands and stored in great piles for winter use. Without the dovekie the little tribe of north Greenland Eskimos would long since have perished of hunger. The ground about their villages is thickly strewn with the L jues of the dovekie, giving abundant proof of the millions whIch have been devoured. When on the water they are entirely safe from the natives, but seem to be very stupid when on land and are then easily captured with nets. When one alights on a rock it is immediately joined by others, until there is a struggling mass, as if it were the only rock in the neighborhood on which to alight. At such times they are easily approached and the quick use of a net or a well-directed stone usually results la the destruction of a number.
Again (1902) he says:
Dovekies display great curiosity, and if the hunter sits 9uietly In full view be ~viil soon have an audience of them near him, all beat on occupying one rock, regardless of its size or of their numbers. A compact flock of birds soon results, and a well-directed stone thrown into their midst does great execution. Stones may be thrown a number of times at the same flock before they decide to adjourn.
Dr. Hayes (1867) gives us the following graphic account of how he accompanied an Eskimo on an auk-catching expedition in Greenland:
The birds were more noisy than usual, for they had just returned in immense swarms from the sea, where they had been getting their breakfast. Kalutunah carried a small net, made of light strings of seniskin knItted together very ingeniously. The staff by which it was held was about 10 feet long. After clambering over the rough, sharp stones, we arrived at length about halfway up to the base of the cliffs, where Kalutunab crouched behihd a rock and invited me to follow his example. I observed that the birds were nearly all in flight, and were, with rare exceptions, the males. The length of the slope on which they were congregated was about a mile, and a constant stream of birds ~vas rushing over it, but a few feet above the stones, and, after making in their rapid flight the whole length of the hill, they returned higher in the air, performing over and over again the complete circuit. Occasionally a few hundreds or thousands of them would drop down, as If following some leader, and in an instant the rocks for a space of several rods would swarm all over with them, their black backs and pure white breasts speckling the hill very prettily.
While I wns watching these movements with much Interest my companIon was intent only upon business, and warned me to lie lower, as the birds saw me and were flying too high overhea(l. Having at length got myself stowed away to the satisfaction of my savage companion, the sport began. The birds were beginning again to whirl their flight closer to our heads: so close, indeed, did they come that it seemed almost as if I could catch them ~vith my cap. Presently I observed by companion preparing himself as a flock of unusual thickness was approaching, and in a moment up went the net; a half dozen birds flew bang Into it, and, stunned with the blow, they could not flutter out before Kalutunab had slipped the staff quickly through his hands and seized the net. With his left hand he now pressed down the birds, while with the right he drew them out one by one, and for want of a third hand he used his teeth to crush their heads. The wIngs were then locked across each other to keep them from fluttering away, and with an air of triumph the old fellow looked around at me, spat the blood and feathers from his mouth, and went on ~vith the sport, tossing up his net and hauling it in with much rapidity, until he had caught about a hundred birds; when my curiosity being amply satisfied, we returned to camp and made a hearty meal out of the game which we had begged in this novel and unsportsman-like manner. While an immense stew was preparing, Kalutunab amused himself with tearing off the birds’ skills and consuming the raw flesh while It was yet warm.
Winter: Although large numbers of dovekies migrate as far south as the coasts of New England a great many spend the winter near the edge of the Arctic ice pack, off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, on the Atlantic Ocean, and even in southern Greenland. They leave their northernmost breeding grounds about the first or second week in September and work slowly southward as cold weather advances, reaching the New England coast in November. They are generally common and sometimes abundant on the Maine coast in winter, but south of the neighborhood of Massachusetts Bay they are rare, or irregular in appearance. While with us in winter they ordinarily spend their time out on the open sea, several miles from land, skimming over the tops of the waves or swimming about singly or in little groups; they are more often seen in the vicinity of sunken ledges or about little rocky islets than off the sandy shores of Cape Cod. In stormy weather they are often driven in near the beaches or even into harbors, creeks, and rivers. There are numerous instances on record where these little sea birds have been driven far inland and have perished from hunger and exhaustion. Mr. William Brewster (1906) relates his recollections of a memorable flight of this kind “which inundated eastern Massachusetts on November 15, 1871,” which probably “comprised nearly, if not quite all, the birds which were living at that time off our coast.”
On the date just named a violent easterly storm, accompanied hy torrents of rain and an exceptionally high tide, forced imultitudes of dovekies to seek refuge in the fresh-water ponds and rivers near the coast, and many birds were picked up in an exhausted condition in fields, meadows, barnyards, and even in our city streets. Within the area to which this paper relates they appeared in the greatest numbers in Charles River between Cambridge and Waltham, in the Mystic Ponds, and in Fresh Pond. The sheet of water last named was visited by hundreds, which came in singly or by twos and threes, and occasionally in flocks of from 10 or a dozen to 30 or 40 indivIduals each. The larger flocks often rose and left the pon4, when disturbed, but the single birds, although somewhat restless, were absurdly tame. Some of them were taken alive, others killed with oars, and very many shot by collectors or sportsmen, 50 or more being captured in all.
Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the north Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Baffin Land, Ellesmere Land, northern Greenland (Disco Island, Cape York, and Kane Basin), northern Iceland (Isle of Grimsey), Spitzbergen, Franz Josef Land, and Nova Zembla. Often ranges north in summer to latitude 810 or 820. Has been recorded in July in 770 north, 151 east (near Bennett Islands), near Melville Island in August, and two birds seen near Wainwright Inlet, Alaska, August 10, 1914.
Winter range: From southern Greenland (Ivigtut and Arsuk) south along the coast to New York (Long Island), rarely to New Jersey (Cape May, Egg Harbor, Delaware River), Virginia (Chincoteague Bay, Cobbs Island, Smiths Island), North Carolina (Currituck Sound, Roanoke Island), and South Carolina (Beaufort). Also from the British Isles and the North Sea south along the coasts of Holland, France, and Spain to the Azores, Canary, and Madeira Islands.
Spring migration: Birds leave the coast of Maine about March 15. Massachusetts: May 1 (latest). Rhode Island: April 2’1 (latest). New York: Long Island, in April (latest May 29). An unusually late record is Vermont: Bennington, May 31. Grand Manan. May 4. Latitude 48~ 20′ north, longitude 460 30′ west: May 22. They arrive in Greenland: Davis Strait, May 20; Baffin Bay, May 18 (rarely in April); Bowdoin Bay, May 8; Smith Sound, May 26; Spitzbergen. March 28; Franz Josef Land, February 25.
Fall migration: Probab]y starts in July in Greenland: Davis Strait, common in July; Foulke Fiord, last, September 3; Cape Parry, last, September 11; Bowdoin Bay, last, September 6; northeastern Greenland, latitude 750, August 2 (latest). Labrador: Cape Harrison, September 18. Anticosti Island, Gulf of St. Lawrence, in September. Birds reach New England usually in November. Early dates are: Maine coast, July 15. Massachusetts: Cape Cod, September 10; Nantucket, October 11. Connecticut: September, 1874. New York: Long Island, August.
Casual records: Wisconsin: Point Washington, January 11. Michigan: Detroit River, November 30. Bermuda Island, January 28. The two Ontario records prove to refer to specimens of the ancient murrelet.
Egg dates: Greenland: 19 records, June 7 to July 28; 10 records, June 16 to July 12. Ice] and: 4 records, June 3, 8, and 28, and July 12.