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Economic Use of Birds in Greenland: Encyclopedia Arctica 4: Zoology (Birds)
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

EA-Zoology
(Finn Salomonsen)

ECONOMIC USE OF BIRDS IN GREENLAND

Birds are of considerable economic importance to the Greenlanders, although
not to the same degree as seals, certain whales, and the arctic fox. In recent
years the marine mammals have decreased in number, at least along the West
Greenland coasts, and seal hunting has been given up in many places. Under
these circumstances birds have become an important supplement to the food
supply. Particular methods have not developed, as far as bird hunting is
concerned; the shooting or capture sometimes resembles slaughter more than
actual hunting. Owing to the rapidly growing human population and the increase–
ing use of guns, the eider duck was near extinction some time ago. Protective
measures promulgated by the Greenland Administration have contributed to some
improvement.
A number of birds, mainly marine species, play a part in the economy of
the Greenlanders. The most important of these species are here treated in
systematic order.
Red-throated Loon ( Gavia stellata ) is not particularly persecuted by the
Greenlanders. The flesh is eaten only occasionally, but the plumage of the
head and neck (in the nuptial dress), like that of the eider duck, is sometimes
used for decorative purposes in the wall hangings made in southwest Greenland.
Loons are usually shot with rifles.

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

Common Loon ( Gavia immer ) is hunted to some extent by the Greenlanders of
the southern west coast, who use the plumage for making their beautiful orna–
mental wall hangings. Only the head and neck (in nuptial plumage) are used.
For a good-sized wall hanging about 50 heads are needed. Although this
industry has been abandoned in many places, it still flourishes in some of
the northern parts of Julianehaab District. The common loon is very numerous
there and 200 to 300 specimens are shot annually in order to furnish material
for blankets and hangings.
Fulm e a r ( Fulmarus glacialis ) breeds on the west coast from Disko Bay
north to Thule District. It is to some extent hunted by the Greenlanders in
Umanak and Upernivik Districts, but not in Disko Bay. This is explained by
the fact that the flesh and eggs are fairly palatable in the northern regions,
where the birds feed on planktonic organisms, but not in Disko Bay, probably
because there they feed mainly on offal from whalers and fisheries. Egg
collecting takes place only in Umanak District, where about 3,000 eggs are
taken annually. According to the banding records, 4% of the fulmars are shot.
White-fronted Goose ( Anser albifrons ) is shot only in small numbers.
Banding records show that only 2% are shot in Greenland compared with 9% in
their winter quarters in the British Isles. The small figure in Greenland
is due to the fact that the majority of this species breed in the uninhabited
interior, where also the fall migration takes place. Only during spring
migration is there a chance to shoot them. While hunting reindeer in the
interior in August the Greenlanders catch a good number of goslings at the
breeding places and sell them in the settlements to the Danish households
where they are fattened for Martinmas or Christmas. (Goose is the national
Danish dish on these occasions.)

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

Brant ( Branta bernicla ) is extensively hunted by the Greenlanders during
its passage along the coast of northwest Greenland and in Angmagasalik
District, i.e., from mid-May [: ] to mid-June and in September and
early October.
Other species of geese than those mentioned above are of no economic
importance to the Greenlanders.
Mallard ( Anas platyrhyncha ) is hunted only to a limited extent; according
to banding records about 5% are shot. This is probably due to the fact that
the greater part breed in the desolate interior. In winter the flesh is not
nearly so palatable as that of the ordinary mallard, no doubt owing to the
bird’s diet of marine animals.
Old Squaw ( Clangula hyemalis ) is not hunted to any marked extent. A
number are shot during eider duck hunts and some egg collecting takes place.
Eider ( Somateris mollissima ) is the most important bird in the economy
of the Greenlanders. In former times it was violently and ruthlessly pursued.
Until the protective laws came into force it was killed during the twelve months
of the year, and was even shot when incubating; the eggs were collected several
times every year. This wholesale slaughter could not fail to leave its mark,
and the eider was almost exterminated in southwest Greenland. In 1924 and 1929
motions were passed by the Greenland Administration prohibiting egg collecting,
except in early spring (until May 15), the capture of mated and brooding birds,
and the chasing of flightless birds.
The flesh of the eider is a most important source of food, especially in
winter. The feathers are used for pillows and down coverlets. The skins with
their down are used for the birdskin coat, the so-called tingmiaq , which is
worn under the a á nor a â q . In order to make a tingmiaq 15 to 25 skins are necessary,

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

and it is generally renewed every year. (Most Greenlanders, it is true, now
use European clothes.)
The skins are further used for the preparation of the beautiful blankets
made for sale on the Danish market, where they are used as bed covers, wall
hangings, covers for perambulators, etc. They are made of skins from which
the feathers have been plucked, leaving the down on the skin, and are edged
with a border of the head plumage of the males of both eider and king eider
(in nuptial dress). Sometimes heads of loons or cormorants are used instead.
More than 100 eider duck skins are necessary for a good-sized blanket.
The official trade started in 1903, but statistics are available only
from [: ] 1915. In the beginning of the twentieth century more than 400
blankets were bought annually by the trading company; twenty years later this
number had risen to over 1,300 every year, reaching a peak of 2,064 in 1921,
and from 1939 the Greenland Administration wisely stopped the official trade.
A small number are still sold privately. The blankets are produced only in
southwest Greenland north to Hosteinsborg District, the greatest number in
Sukkertoppen District. They are manufactured especially by women, primarily
widows, who in this way obtain a fairly good extra income.
The down collected from the nests is not used by the Greenlanders but
is sold to the trading company. This down was one of the first articles
bought by the trading company, and in former times it played a considerable
role in the economy of the Greenlanders. Owing to the decrease in the number
of eider ducks, the amount of down sold is now inconsiderable. The trade
statistics from about 1820 show the following deplorable development.

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

Table I. Average Amount of Eider Down Sold Annually.
Years Kilograms Years Kilograms
1822-31 4,584 1880-90 906
1836-41 2,149 1890-1900 364
1840-50 1,726 1900-10 324
1850-60 2,034 1910-20 668
1860-70 1,015 1920-30 410
1870-80 1,180 1930-39 233
The lowest figures were reached in 1929-31, with 65, 20, and 71 kilograms,
respectively. The protective laws, in force since about 1925, have resulted
in a slight increase, viz. , to 464 kilograms in 1937 and 405 kilograms in 1938.
It is generally true that 1 kilogram comprises the content of an average of
24 nests. This means that the nests raided have decreased from more than
100,000 to about 5,000 in the course of a century. In recent years (since
World War II) the Greenland Administration has endeavored to erect artificial
nesting places ( varp ) after the well-known Iceland mode, but as yet this idea
has been adopted by the Greenlanders only on a modest scale.
The eggs are especially important in the northern districts (Thule–
Upernivik), where they are cached for the winter. As many as 20,000 to 30,000
eggs were formerly collected in Upernivik District annually. An even larger
number is still taken in Thule District where egg collecting has always been
strictly controlled and limited to one annual visit to the breeding places.
In Thule District all shooting of eider and king eider is prohibited until
September 1. In Scoresby Sound District shooting is prohibited between July 1
and August 15, and egg and down collecting from June 25 to the period when the
ducklings have left the nest.

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

The number of eiders captured annually in West Greenland is about 150,000.
Banding has shown that 30 to 40% of the eider population of Thule are shot in
southwest Greenland in winter, most of them while on the spring and fall
migrations and during the daily movements in and out of the fjords. Formerly
the largest numbers were flightless birds chased in the fall, when they collect
in large flocks, and driven on land and killed by thousands; this is now
prohibited.
King Eider ( Somateria spectabilis ) is left alone by the Greenlanders on
the breeding places, but elsewhere it is hunted to the same extent as the
eider and is used in the same way as this species. When shooting a darke the
Greenlanders invariably bite off the frontal knob and eat it raw, for it is
considered a great delicacy. According to banding records of grown-up, flightless
birds, about 10% are shot.
Common Cormorant ( Phalacrocorax carbo ) is extensively hunted by the
Greenlanders. The flesh is eaten and the neck plumage (in nuptial dress only)
to some extent used for ornamental purposes in the blanket industry. Hunting
is done at the breeding places, where the young also are taken. In winter the
cormorant is hunted especially at its sleeping places. According to banding
record, no less than 34% are shot.
Rock Ptarmigan ( Lagopus mutus ) is only occasionally shot. The Greenlanders
are not particularly fond of the flesh and do not want to waste a cartridge
on this minor game. Many ptarmigan are stoned, however, a sport in which
especially the half-grown boys delight and which they pursue with astonishing
skill. Only in peak years is a large number shot, as the ptarmigan is then
an easy prey and several may be obtained with one shot. Many are then also
snared. The Greenlanders invariably tear out the intestines of the freshly

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

killed bird, while still warm, and eat them raw together with their content
of half-digested green stuff. This is regarded as a delicacy, and was, at
least in earlier [: ] days, a necessary source of vitamins. The Greenlanders
usually sell the ptarmigan to the Danish inhabitants, so find the flesh
very palatable. The Danes themselves are very keen on shooting ptarmigan.
A good number of ptarmigan are canned and some are sold to purchasers in
Denmark, but on a modest scale and under private conditions only. The ptarmigan
has been protected and egg collecting prohibited in southwest Greenland, north
to Holsteinsborg District, from May 1 to July 31, particularly on account of
shooting by the Danes. The annual number shot probably does not exceed 10,000,
only in peak years amounting to about 50,000. According to banding records
(in the peak year 1948-49), 12% of the ptarmigan are shot, but this figure does
not hold good for the whole Greenland population.
Purple Sandpiper ( Erolia maritima ) is the only wader wintering in Greenland
and the only one of any economic importance to the Greenlanders. Banding shows
that 21% are shot, mainly in winter.
Parasitic Jaeger or Arctic Skua ( Stercorarius parasiticus ) is to some extent
hunted by the Greenlanders, who eat its flesh. Since it leaves the Greenland
waters as early as August or September, it does not actually play any part in
their economy. A dd cc ording to banding records, 7% are shot.
Gulls. Great black-backed gull ( Larus marinus ), glaucous gull ( L. hyper -
boreus
), and Iceland gull ( L. glaucoides ) are all hunted to a considerable
degree. By far the greatest number shot are juveniles captured as fledglings
near the breeding places or in the fall until November. According to banding
records, 20 to 22% are shot. The flesh is eaten, the feathers plucked and,
together with other sea-birds’ feathers (mainly Brunnich’s Murre), sold for

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

the trading company. Only a minor part is used in local households for
pillows and down coverlets. The production of feathers has steadily increased
and is now an important economic factor, which shows the significance of
bird hunting in our time. In 1850-60 the production was less than 2,000
kilograms, reaching a peak in 1938 with 17,934 kilograms.
Table II. Average Amount of Gull Feathers Sold Annually .
Years Kilograms Years Kilograms
1850-60 1,964 1900-10 9,065
1860-70 2,735 1910-20 11,051
1870-80 4,526 1920-30 11,746
1880-90 5,987 1930-39 12,563
1890-1900 7,157
Although the largest bird colonies are situated in northwest Greenland
(Jakobshavn, Unmark and Upernivik Districts) the production of feathers is
much lower there than in southwest Greenland, amounting to only about 25% of
the production. The reason for this is that the birds stay in northwest
Greenland only in summer when the inhabitants are busily engaged with other
hunting and have no time for plucking. The skins with the feathers are
therefore given to the sledge dogs for food. In southwest Greenland the
majority of gulls and murres are shot in the fall and winter. The greatest
production of feathers takes place in Julianehaab and Godthaab Districts.
Egg collecting in also done to some extent.
Kittiwake ( Rissa tridactyla ) is shot like other gulls mentioned. The
flesh is eaten and the feathers sold to the trading company. According to
banding records, only 5% are shot, but since the kittiwake is much more

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

numerous than the other gull species its economic importance is just as great.
Arctic Tarn ( Sterna paradisaea ) is hunted only occasionally, but egg
collecting is important. The eggs collect ion ed in the Disko Bay district, where
the arctic tern has its greatest population density, amount to about 100,000
a year.
Black Guillemot ( Cepphus grylls ) is shot in large numbers, particularly
in the fall and winter. Banding shows that 18% are shot.
Thick-billed or Brünnich’s Murre ( Uria lomvia ) is the most important
bird to the Greenlanders apart from the eider duck. The flesh is eaten, the
skins with feathers used for the tingmiaq, or birdskin coat, like those of the
eider, or the feathers are sold to the trading company. Brünnich’s murre is
particularly common in northwest Greenland (Jakobshavn, Umanak and Upernivik
Dis t ricts), but hunting is not regula r ted on most of the breeding places.
Shooting takes place on a large scale in summer at the bird colonies and
has involved a general decrease in most places. This indiscriminate shooting
is not generally prohibited, but many municipal governments in recent years
have protected the local breeding places or limited shooting or to certain
periods. In settlements near the large breeding places murres are an impor–
tant source of food during the summer, and a large number are dried and salted
for the winter.
In southwest Greenland the murres are mainly shot when wintering along
the coast. They are usually captured from kayaks, and in order not to disturb
the clocks too much the old “bird arrow” is still used for this hunting instead
of a gun. The annual number captured has increased, being about 70,000 in
1850, about 100,000 in 1900, and no doubt nearer 150,000 in recent years.
Egg collecting is done on the bird cliffs where they are accessible, but is

EA-Zoo. Salomonsen: Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

important only in Upernivik District where the annual number taken amounts
to about 10,000 eggs.
Puffin and Auk. Puffin ( Fratercula arctica ) and razor-billed auk
( Alca torda Alca torda ) are too infrequent to be of any economic importance and are
shot only occasionally. However, puffins’ eggs are collected in many places,
and unfortunately this is done so carelessly (by digging out the eggs from
the peat) that the breeding places are often deserted by the birds. This
has resulted in a general decrease of the puffin everywhere.
Dovekie ( Plotus alle ) is of importance only in Thule District. In the
winter quarters of the birds along the coast of southwest Greenland only a
modest number are shot. In Thule District the devokie is d c aught in tens of
thousands by the Polar Eskimos. The greater part are captured in nets fixed
on rods and are cached in great piles for the winter. [: ]
[: ] The skins are used for making coats. A great number of nest–
lings are collected on the breeding places, particularly by women. Banding
of adult birds has shown that 18% of the birds returning in subsequent
years are captured.
Finn Salomonsen
HomeEconomic Use of Birds in Greenland : Encyclopedia Arctica 4: Zoology (Birds)
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