Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Birds of Newfoundland: Dovekie AKA Bullbird

If you were ask a rural Newfoundlander where you might find a Dovekie, you would likely be met with a confused look. However, if you asked where you could find a Bullbird, then you would likely become engaged in a lengthy conversation about the diminutive Alcid, and when you left that person's house, after eating a meal and meeting their family, then you would be back on your search for a Dovkie, AKA a Bullbird!

Yes, Dovekie goes by many names. There is the scientific name, Alle alle, Bullbird in Newfoundland (as explained above),or Little Auk in the UK and Europe. Regardless of the name, with which it's called, all birders agree that seeing a Dovekie is a great thing, and often the highlight of a birders year.When you think about it. It's easy to see why Dovekie is so beloved by birders. It really does have all the key elements to be a birders favourite.


Dovekie ranks high on the cuteness scale. It's a pudgy, big headed and yet small at the same time. On the water it looks like a black and white nerf football with tiny little wings. Dovekies sit low on the water and often seem to be tilted forward, like the weight of their head is causing them to tip. Indeed, they do not look like a bird capable of thriving in the North Atlantic in winter, yet they do. Which brings us to our next point.

Dovekie calling, birds of Newfoundland
Dovekie in breeding plumage, Greenland.
Photo: Carsten Egevang


Dovekie is far from a rare bird in the grand scale of things, but rarity is a relative term. For North American birders Dovekie is often seen one of two places, Alaska (where there is a small breeding population) and Newfoundland (where they winter). Of course, they are seen other places as well at times. If you take a winter pelagic trip off the North Eastern seaboard in winter you may encounter Dovekies. As well, they can also be seen in the other Canadian Atlantic Provinces. However, as a rule, Newfoundland presents the best, easiest and most civilized way, for many North Americans to have their Dovekie experience. Quite often Dovekies can be see at VERY close range in Newfoundland in winter. At times, I have seen thousands of Dovekies in a single day. While, there are other places to see Dovekie in winter, can they claim that? To see Dovekies go about their business in the bitter oceans off of Newfoundland in winter is a great experience and if you have not see it, you should! This brings me to the final reason for the love affair between Dovekies and birders.

Dovekies in flight, birds of newfoundland
A flight of Dovekies in Greenland
Photo: Carsten Egevang

There is something remarkable about those birds that choose to live life under the harshest possible conditions. While most birds are fleeing Newfoundland to escape our winter, Dovekies are just arriving to bask in it. Dovekies have found a way to thrive under circumstances that would be perilous to most other bird species. Having said that, not all Dovekies make it through the Newfoundland winter unscathed. During intense winter storms there are occasionally 'wrecks' of Dovekies. Essentially, some birds are driven by the harsh 100+km/hr winds into Bays, or worse, onto land. In the photo below I am holding a Dovekie prior that I rescued prior to release.

rescuing a trapped Dovekie
An OLD! photo of me holding a Dovekie that I rescued from the rocks. You can really get an idea how small these birds are when holding them in your hands.
Photo: Ken Knowles
Dovekie escapes from Herring Gull
Dovekies are small but they are fighters! Against all odds this bird escaped and was none the worse for it's encounter with this Herring Gull
Photo: John Williams

I have helped many people see their first Dovekie over the last 20 years, and not one of them were let down, no one was disappointed. Seeing a 6 inch long bird that weighs 150 grams expertly maneuver crashing waves and fierce swells, really is a sight to behold, and one that often leaves a lasting impression on a person.

This is the point in the article where I would like to take a minute to indulge in a little shameless self promotion and mention the Birding Newfoundland, Winter Birding Experience Tour, January 12th-17th 2019! Of course, Dovekie will be one of the star attractions but not the only one. Read the tour description for a full list of species and details. Now back to the article :)

So we have established that Dovekie are truly loved and I've tried to explain some reasoning for this. Now lets get some background information, where do these birds breed, what do they eat, who eats them? Yes you won't want to miss all the scintillating details of the traditional Inuit dish Kiviaq, which I've heard described as 'the Turducken from hell'!

Where do Dovekies Breed and Where do they Winter

Dovekies breed in Greenland, Iceland, Nova Zemeya Don't be afraid to use the link to see where this place is, I had to), and Svalbard. In North American they are known to breed on a number of islands in the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea.

Greenland hosts some truly massive numbers in the order of 30-60 million pairs! While Dovekies don't have a massive breeding range, they manage to cram a lot of individuals into their limited range. Dovekies will cram nests into rock crevices or beneath large rocks on these very precipitous slopes, where like other Auks, they lay a single egg.

Dovekies Greenland, birds of Newfoundland
A mass of Dovekies, Greenland
Photo: Carsten Egevang
As I previously stated many Dovekies winter in the waters off of Newfoundland and in other parts of the North Atlantic. They can also be found in the Norwegian sea. Wherever they are found, they feed primarily on small crustaceans called Copepods. If necessary they will also take other marine invertebrates and even small fish.

Dovekie in Newfoundland in winter
Dovekie in winter plumage. Note that Dovekies lose their black bib in winter and are all white below with white wrapping around the side of the head forming a cheek patch. This cheek path can be seen from quite some distance.
Photo: John Williams
We have learned a bit about Dovekies so far. We know where they breed,  where they winter and we know that birders love them. You probably already knew the later, since you are likely among their admirers! When possible, I like to include interesting facts about species that I highlight, including their meaningful interactions with humans. Do you remember when I mentioned Turducken from hell, it's time to explain what I meant by that.

It would seem that food can get quite scarce when you live in Greenland, I mean even the Dovekies leave in winter! So native Inuit had to be extremely ingenuitive to ensure they had enough food to make it through the long harsh Arctic winter. You likely have heard of the saying 'make hay when the sun shines'? The Inuit applied this to capturing Dovekies during the short Greenland summer. 

Thousands of Dovekie would be harvested, but how to store them without them rotting before winter? One solution is to take a Grey Seal, skin it, but leave the blubber lining, you don't want to waste that!. Then you take about 400 or so Dovekies, complete with bills, feet, feathers and stuff that seal skin until its full and then sew it up. You then take this Dovekie-stuffed Seal sausage, and bury it under rocks and let it ferment for a few months. After a few months you dig it up and voila you have the Inuit delicacy known as Kiviaq! After this extended period of fermentation the Dovkie meat is said to smell very ripe and I can believe it! I think I can almost smell it though the screen.

Kiviaq: Native Inuit delicacy of Grey Seal skin, stuff with Dovekies and left to ferment.

Hopefully, you enjoy the article and maybe even learned a little something about Dovkies and maybe even gained a new dinner recipe! I'll end with another amazing photo from Carsten Egevang, a great photographer who has spent considerable time in the Arctic doing a variety of activities, including taking breathtaking photos. Since I lost my Dovekie images when a hard drive crashed I thank everyone who contributed photos who made this article possible. I strongly recommend checking out Carsten's website here, where among other things you can purchase some amazing wall art.

Dovekies in flight in Greenland
Backlit Dovekies, note their characteristic shape in flight, a nerf football with wings!
Photo: Carsten Egevang

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