by Frank Keim
The Yup’ik name (Culuksuksaar(aq)) for this handsome parrot-beaked seabird that I was given in Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay is one of the most descriptive that I’ve run across yet. It loosely means, having a feather or fin decoration on its body (on its head, in this case), and derives from “culuk” and “culugaq,” meaning, quill of a feather or fish’s dorsal fin, and “culuksuk” or “culuksugun,” meaning a decoration hanging from a parka that looks like a feather quill or fish fin. On Nunivak Island they call the bird, Cip’lagaq, probably having something to do with their courting ritual.
Similar to its cousin the Parakeet auklet, the Crested auklet is a small chunky sea bird with an ornamental tuft of black feathers hanging down from its forehead, and is seen only on and around Bering Sea offshore islands and coasts with high craggy cliffs. Seal hunters may see them if they happen to be hunting in the coastal waters of Nunivak Island or in deeper waters on the open sea. If you’re lucky, you may also see them foraging near the Hooper Bay-Scammon Bay coast.
You can’t mistake them because they feed in huge flocks while swimming and diving together in deep water, sometimes as much as 100 feet below the surface. They especially like to feed in areas where there is turbulence caused by upwellings or strong tidal flows in passes between islands. Their diet is mostly tiny zooplankton, including euphausiid shrimp and copepods that occur in enormous swarms, although small fish and squid are also a part of their menu.
According to the scientist, Hector Douglas, it’s probable that those same shrimp are responsible for the bird’s bright tangerine-colored beak. (Douglas says this auklet is the only seabird that smells like a tangerine, and that when he isolated the chemicals responsible for the scent, he found them to be the same as those in citrus fruits and stink bugs. He thinks they may also help attract a mate, and that they might repel ticks, lice and mosquitoes.)
Crested auklets nest in colonies on steep rocky islands among the boulders of talus slopes and broken lava flows as well as on cliffs with many cracks and crevices. Their colonies are extremely noisy places, with birds whistling, barking and honking from their crevices among the rocks. They usually fly in tightly packed flocks and, especially during the mating season, perform mass circling maneuvers, soaring, swooping, and diving near their colonies.
Culuksuksaarat first breed when they are three or four years old. After the male finds a deep crack or crevice in the cliff rocks for a nest site, he goes a courting. If there are eligible females in the vicinity, he puffs out his chest, then points his bill at the sky and makes honking sounds. If a female approaches him, the pair touches bills and preens each other’s neck feathers. Like their other small auk cousins, they also intertwine their necks. When things get serious, the female scrapes a shallow depression in soil or pebbles at the bottom of the cavity. Sometimes this may be several feet below the surface of the rock pile.
Egg laying is next, but only one, and, since it is laid in a dark cavity, it is predictably white so the parents can readily see it. Incubation is by both sexes for about 34 days. After the egg hatches, both parents feed the one young bird, carrying back high energy seafood in their throat pouches. The young is reported to be noisy, making peeping sounds when the parents are present, and whistling when they are absent. After a month of being fed, the young ventures out from the safety of its little cave, exercises its wings for a few days, then takes an awkward leap of faith into the moist sea air above the Bering Sea. If it successfully manages to escape the deadly rocks and breakers below, it joins its parents in foraging for the same zooplankton and small fish and squid as they and the rest of the colony do.
During the onset of winter and the formation of ice over the Bering Sea, the colonies of Crested auklets migrate south to winter in protected marine waters around Kodiak Island. Siberian birds winter south to northern Japan and the Kurile Islands.
Back to names again, the English common name is self-evident, and the scientific name, Aethia cristatella, is a direct translation from the English. In the Yup’ik dialect, Koniag Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), once spoken in Kodiak and the upper Alaska Peninsula, the Crested auklet’s name is reported to be Kungyuk, which relates to its Koniag origin. Kodiak elders recalled taking these birds in the winter. They hunted them on the water, often with the help of moonlight or by the light of the rising sun. Since they were small birds, hunters took many of them at a time, which they roasted or included in their soups. These elders also said that the auklets were more numerous in the past, as they now seldom occurred in large flocks and were no longer hunted.
Although the birds are presently not considered endangered, the observations of Native people who hunted them over many years can teach us about important changes in their seasonal cycle that western scientists still know little about. Their knowledge can also provide us with valuable information on the harmful impacts of humans on the environment, including the consequences of Climate Change.
Since the preferred food species of Crested auklets and other seabirds in the Bering Sea region and northern Pacific Ocean reproduce more robustly in cooler waters, Climate Change and warmer waters will undoubtedly result in the reduction of their populations.