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    Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

    Encyclopedia Arctica 4: Zoology (Birds)

    Economic Use of Birds in Greenland

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    (Finn Salomonsen)


            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


            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.

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    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.)

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    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,

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    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.

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    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.

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    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


            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

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    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 -

    ), 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

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    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

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    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

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    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

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