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

Economic Use of Birds in Alaska

(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.

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

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

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

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

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,

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

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.

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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