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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 21:24 EDT

Little Auk

The Little Auk, or Dovekie (Alle alle) is a small auk, and the only member of the genus Alle. It breeds on islands in the high Arctic. There are two subspecies: A. a. alle which breeds in Greenland, Iceland, Novaya Zemlya and Spitzbergen, and A. a. polaris on Franz Josef Land.

These birds can be found during times of breeding on coastal mountainsides, where they have huge colonies. They nest in crevices or beneath large rocks and normally lay one egg. They migrate south in winter, moving into the north Atlantic. Late autumn storms may carry them south of their normal wintering areas, or into the North Sea.

This is the only Atlantic auk of its size. At half the size of the Atlantic Puffin it measures 19-21 cm in length and has a wingspan of 34-38 cm. Adult birds are black on the head, neck, back and wings with white underparts. The bill is very short and stubby. They have a small rounded black tail. The lower face and fore neck become white in winter.

The flight is direct, with fast whirring wing beats due to the short wings. These birds forage for food like other auks by swimming underwater. Their preferred prey is crustaceans (especially copepods) but they will also dine on other small invertebrates along with small fish. They collect in large swarms before leaving their breeding grounds to head out to sea for food.

Little Auks produce a variety of twitters and cackling calls at the breeding colonies, but are silent at sea.

Large numbers of Little Auks have been killed in several oil-spill incidents. Over-fishing has little effect, because their prey is mainly crustaceans, but climate changes (warming) in Southern Greenland and Iceland seems to be the reason for the decreasing populations there. The Glaucous Gull and the Arctic Fox are the main predators on Little Auks, and in some cases the polar bear has also been reported to feed on their eggs (Kjell Isaksen, Maria V. Gavrilo, 2000).

Little Auk