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    Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

    Encyclopedia Arctica 4: Zoology (Birds)

    Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

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    (Olaus J. Murie)


            The original inhabitants of Alaska found there a fauna particularly

    rich in bird life. Alaskan birds share the characteristics of the circum–

    polar avifauna and are a part of it, but because of topographic and climatic

    peculiarities the bird life of Alaska is particularly varied and locally

    numerous, with some unusual forms.

            For example, in the Bering Sea region there are four distinct species

    of eiders. In addition to the several varieties of Canada geese, the brant,

    and the white-fronted goose, there is the handsome emperor goose. The

    Aleutian chain i o f islands contains swarms of auklets in the great variety

    of species: murrelets, two kinds of murres, three kinds of cormorants,

    two kinds of puffins, two or more kinds of petrels as well as the fulmar,

    great colonies of kittiwakes and gulls, and the summering flocks of shear–

    waters, not to mention the geese, ducks, and swans that nest or winter there.

    These by no means exhaust the list of birds of this remarkable island chain.

            There are great bird colonies on cliffs of the Pribilof Islands,

    St. Lawrence Island, parts of Alaska Peninsula, and Cook Inlet, and smaller

    locations from southeastern to northern Alaska. The tide flats and other

    marshy habitats favor a great variety of shore birds, ducks, geese, cranes,

    and swans. One of the most remarkable is the Hooper Bay area on Bering Sea.

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    EA-Zoo. Murie: Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

    Similar areas occur all along the Bering Sea coast, including the low northern

    side of Alaska Peninsula. In the interior, Canada geese nest on the river bars.

    There are the Yukon Flats, certain marshy areas of the upper Tanana River and

    the Kuskokwim, the Salcha Slough region near Fairbanks, Copper River flats

    in southeastern Alaska, and many other local marshes and lakes throughout

    the country, all of which furnish nesting or feeding areas, or both, for

    numerous waterfowl. The Aleutian Island district and the southern coast,

    generally, provide wintering places for many of these, though a great number

    move into far-southern latitudes.

            The grouse are conspicuous among land birds. The spruce grouse, common

    across the continental boreal region, occupies the spruce forest. The ruffed

    grouse is also common. Sharp-tailed grouse occur in limited numbers in the

    Tanana River drainage and in a few other places. In the deep forests of

    southeastern Alaska is found the large blue grouse. But the ptarmigan

    (three distinct kinds, not to mention the subspecies) are the striking and

    abundant representatives of the grouse family. The white-tailed ptarmigan

    is found in the highest mountain habitats, somewhat restricted in distribu–

    tion and numbers, and the more abundant rock ptarmigan and willow ptarmigan

    are found from Point Barrow to Attu Island and from the Bering Sea coast to


            Such are the Alaskan birds that have been of economic human use. The

    Eskimos, Aleuts, and Indiana naturally took advantage of this wealth of

    bird life and utilized it for food and clothing. Seals, caribou, fish, and

    other creatures were the mainstay of their lives, but birds contributed an

    important supplement.

            On the Bering Sea coast Eskimos were accustomed to turn out in great

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    EA-Zoo. Murie: Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

    numbers on grassy tide flats, in a big semicircle, to drive young and molting

    adult geese before them. As the circle narrowed and the geese were concen–

    trated, they were driven between the wings of a pound formed by a salmon

    net and there killed. Great quantities of birds were obtained in this way.

    Geese, ptarmigan, and other birds were also killed with spears hurled by a

    throwing stick in the hand, or with bows and arrows.

            Many eggs were gathered — duck and goose eggs, eggs of sandpipers and

    other small birds, eggs of murres on the cliffs, and of gulls an island nesting

    grounds. On the upper Tanana River many years ago the author found that the

    Indians would mark any duck nests they discovered with their personal marks,

    thereby claiming the eggs when the full set would be completed.

            In early days it was reported that the Aleuts were accustomed to raising

    the geese in captivity, for use as good in the following winter, probably the

    only instance of a modified domestication of birds for food by the original


            On St. Lawrence Island the nestling cormorants are considered a delicacy,

    and auklets are caught in scoop nets at the end of a pole. Birds already

    caught are hung alive by their beaks on a stretched line their fluttering

    attracts other passing flocks within range of the waiting net.

            Ducks and auklets were often snared. According to Nelson (5), gulls

    were caught with a barb at the end of a line, with a small fish as bait.

    When the gull picked up the floating fish and attempted to swallow it, the

    bard pierced the throat and held the bird fast. Bolas were need by both

    Eskimos and Aleuts for throwing into passing flocks of ducks or other

    birds, particularly in the Bering Strait region.

            Even owls were used for food, at least in some areas. The snowy owl is

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    EA-Zoo. Murie: Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

    not too unpalatable, the author found, if one can forget traditional feelings

    about birds of prey.

            Ptarmigan were obtained in several ways. They were killed with bird

    spears or caught in sinew snares set in openings between bushes. Sometimes

    in spring a light, inconspicuous net was set around a crudely stuffed male

    ptarmigan. The conce la al ed hunter would imitate the crowing of the male,

    whereupon a neighboring male would come aggressively to do battle with the

    supposed rival, only to become entangled in the net. On one occasion Nelson

    saw an Eskimo construct a decoy bird with a ball of snow and a piece of moss

    for head and neck. This proved to be surprisingly realistic at a distance,

    simulating the white body and brown neck of the male willow ptarmigan in

    the spring courting season. Migrating ptarmigan, flying low at night, were

    caught in salmon nets raised suddenly before them by waiting Eskimos

    concealed on their know n flight routes.

            Not all large birds were used for food, or highly relished. According

    to Jochelson (4), the Aleuts did not hunt swans extensively. On St. Lawrence

    Island, according to Geist (2), the shearwater and fulmar were seldom eaten,

    and then only in compliance with certain taboos. This is of interest since

    a related species of shearwater, the sooty shearwater, which summers as far

    north as the Aleutian Islands, nests in New Zealand and is there relished

    as food. New Zealanders call it muttonbird and the young are salted in

    large quantities and served at the table as a delicacy. Again, on St. Lawrence

    Island, the ptarmigan which appear in winter are not killed, for there is

    a superstitious taboo against killing any white bird. Among tidbits enjoyed

    by Eskimos is the fatty substance within the colorful swollen forehead of the

    king eider. This is a special treat for children. Thus in many ways the

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    native Alaskans formed their food preferences and habits, adjusted to

    the animal life they found in their environment.

            There were other uses for birds. Along the mainland coast of [ ?] Beri ng

    Sea and the Bering Strait region birdskin parkas were made from the skins

    of cormorants, auklets, murres, eider ducks, loons, emperor geese, and

    white-fronted geese. Nelson also found one made of scaup duck and one of

    guillemo n t. The Aleuts used murres and puffins for this purpose. Collin s (1)

    also mentions murres and guillemots used thus by the Aleuts, and says that

    little children’s garments were sometimes made from the downy skins of

    young eagles. Nelson also found crude mittens made of cormorant skins in

    the Yukon Delta region. Aleuts used the reddish feathers of the rosy

    finch for decorations. The Eskimos and Aleuts used the plumes and the

    colorful beak sheaths of the crested auklet for the same purpose. Feathers

    and down were used in various wau y s on the carved masks, and the skin of the

    head and neck of the loon was made into a fillet worn in dances. The beak

    of the albatross with part of the skull attached was used by some Eskimos

    to bail out their skin boats.

            We must bear in mind also that birds, together with other animals, had

    their part in the development of those early cultures, their mythology, art,

    and other esthetic attributes that color and influence the lives of people.

            The pioneer white men of Alaska naturally utilized available birds for

    food. To some extent they followed the customs of Eskimos — using the eggs

    of such birds as gulls and murres — but largely they brought with them the

    tastes developed in their former environment. There were many exceptions,

    many adaptations to the customs of the Eskimos and Indians, but generally

    they avoided the so-called “fis y h ” sea birds and some of the ducks. However,

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    EA-Zoo. Murie: Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

    the group known as river ducks, the geese, and the various grouse have

    always contributed to the fare of the white man in the North.

            As the people settled into communities and established the usual

    frontier civilization, the element of sport came into the picture. Game

    laws and hunting seasons were established, and waterfowl became the object

    of sport as well as a source of food.

            With the growth of human population and a greater knowledge of ecology,

    especially the facts of migration, it became necessary to establish inter–

    national co-operation by means of treaties. We now have treaties between

    Canada and the United States, and the United States and Mexico. Some of

    the geese reared on Buldir Island in the Aleutians, for example, and there

    carrying an Aleut name, may be shot in California. Some of the pintails

    observed by Eskimos in northern Alaska may go to Mexico to spend the winter.

    Thus, in the case of Alaskan bird life, no less than in general political

    affairs, our world has become more interrelated and complex.

            We know that most of the waterfowl are reared in the boreal region

    of our continent, and that the great majority of these migrate to the States

    and beyond. Accordingly, we now have the realization that the migratory

    waterfowl of Alaska, which furnish food and sport to present-day Alaskans,

    must depend for their perpetuation on certain wintering areas along the

    Pacific Coast and the system of refuges maintained by the United States

    Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the protection given them by the

    three nations of the North American continent.

            Speaking more generally of the total avifauna of Alaska, aside from

    any food values, there is a growing realization of its importance to

    science and to the recreational and esthetic satisfactions of people of

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    EA-Zoo. Murie: Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

    today. Sport hunting will continue, and for some time certain birds will

    be valuable as food for Eskimos and Indians, and to a certain extent for

    white men, but the recreational and esthetic values will undoubtedly in–

    crease in importance.

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    EA-Zoo. Economic Use of Birds in Alaska


    1. Collins, H.B., Jr., Clark A.H., and Walker, E.H. The Aleutian Islands;

    Their People and Natural History . Wash., Smithsonian

    Institution, 1945. Its Publ . 3775.

    2. Geist, O.W., and Rainey, F.G. Archaeological Excavations at Kukulik,

    St. Lawrence Island, Alaska . Wash. G.P.O., 1936.

    Alaska, Univ. Misc.Publ . vol.2.

    3. Jochelson, Weldemar. Archaeological Investigations in the Aleutian

    Islands. Wash., Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1925.

    Its . Publ . no.367.

    4. ----. History, Ethnology and Anthropology of the Aleut . Wash., Carnegie

    Institution of Washington, 1933. Its Publ . no.432.

    5. Nelson, E.W. “The Eskimo about Bering Strait,” U.S. Bureau of American

    Ethnology. Annual Report , 18th, 1896-97. Wash., G.P.O.,

    1899, pp.19-518.

    6. ----. Report upon Natural History Collections made in Alaska between

    the Years 1877 and 1881 . Wash., G.P.O., 1887. U.S. Army.

    Signal Service. Arctic Series of Publications no.3.


    Olaus J. Murie

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