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Authors: Montevecchi, William A., and Iain J. Stenhouse

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Adult Dovekie, breeding plumage.
Figure 1. Breeding and winter distribution of the Dovekie in N. America.

The Dovekie (also known as the Little Auk) is the smallest and most abundant alcid in the North Atlantic. This tiny, compact, black-and-white auk has high energy requirements during chick-rearing and is the only Atlantic seabird to prey mostly on copepods. It breeds predominantly in high-arctic regions, particularly Greenland, with a few small breeding assemblages in northeastern Canada and the Bering Sea, and it winters in massive numbers in the low-arctic and boreal waters of northeastern North America (Fig. 1).

The Dovekie is a dominant component of the marine avifauna of the northwestern Atlantic. Numbers wintering in North American waters and breeding in colonies in northwestern Greenland, where wintering birds originate, have been estimated in the tens of millions. The species’ abundance, docile nature, and accessibility at colonies, inshore waters, and ice edges have allowed humans to exploit it for food. It has played an important role in previous food economies of the Inuit in the Thule District of northwestern Greenland, and of Newfoundlanders. The Inuit also used the skins of the Dovekie to make clothing.

The Dovekie has been given many colorful names by different cultures. Norwegians refer to it as Alkekonge or King Auk; Newfoundlanders call it Bull Bird (owing to its chunky, neckless appearance). One small Newfoundland community just south of St. Johns, called Bay Bulls, is apparently named after this small, hearty auk.

Besides their occurrence in the low-arctic waters of the Grand Banks, along the Newfoundland coast, on the Scotian Shelf and on the northeastern edges of Georges Bank, Dovekies often show up out of range along the east coast of North America and sometimes inland in massive wrecks of stranded, starving birds. Sustained, strong easterly winds have been associated with some of these strandings, most of which have occurred in early winter. Winds likely make feeding conditions unsuitable and push the weakened, emaciated birds landward, although periodic fluctuations in prey availability could also precipitate these strandings. The largest recorded wreck in North America, in the winter of 1932–1933, saw Dovekies raining down on the streets of New York City and large numbers washed up along the entire eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Florida.

Accounts of this species in North America are anecdotal. A number of studies have been carried out at the large colonies in northwestern Greenland and in Spitsbergen, mostly focusing on aspects of reproductive biology and predation (Ferdinand 1969; Norderhaug 1980; Evans 1981; Roby et al. 1981; Stempniewicz 1981, 1986, 1995; Cramp 1985; Konarzewski and Taylor 1989; Konarzewski et al. 1993; Taylor and Konarzewski 1992). Future studies of demography and population biology, winter distribution at sea, and the impacts of natural and anthropogenic perturbations, particularly interactions with marine oil pollution and offshore hydrocarbon platforms, are needed.