by Frank Keim
As its English name “parakeet” suggests, this auklet looks a little like a small parrot. But don’t be fooled, it is far from a parrot. Watch the way it stands, walks, flies, hunts and calls – totally different. It stands and walks on its legs, not its toes; it flies in fits and bursts over seawater, and it chitter-calls more like a cicada, a noisy insect found in the Lower 48. It also hunts on and under the surface of the sea, using its red conical bill to catch and handle slimy gelatinous prey like jellyfish.
In late winter, adult birds migrate northward into the Bering Sea from their wintering habitat in the northern Pacific Ocean. This is usually 4-6 weeks before nesting begins in the vicinity of their loose colonies on the ridges, rocky outcrops, pinnacles or talus slopes of steep maritime cliffs, many of these on isolated islands such as Nunivak, St. Matthew, and Pribilof Islands. The courtship rituals are not as well known as those of the Crested auklet, but since the two species are so closely related, they are probably similar.
After their hormones kick in at about three years of age, and they are well fortified from the good hunting in the Bering Sea, they return to the isolated island rocky cliffs where they were born and begin their courtship ritual. This may include chest-puffing by the male while perched on a rock outcropping as the female watches nearby, plus high-pitched chittering whistles and sky-gazing with his conical red bill, followed by bill-touching, mutual preening and neck-entwining by both male and female.
Parakeet auklets only nest as isolated pairs or in loose colonies with Crested auklets. Their nest site is in a deep crevice on a craggy cliff, ridge, or rocky slope partially covered with vegetation. The pair adds no nest material, and their single egg is laid on bare soil or rock. Both parents take turns incubating the whitish or pale blue egg for about five weeks, and after taking a break to eat, the free bird will sit on the cliff ledge near its nest and watch for danger while its mate incubates the egg or tends to the chick.
After the egg hatches, both parents help feed the young by bringing food (small fish or soft foods like jellyfish) to the nest in their throat pouch and regurgitating it into the throat of the young. About five weeks after hatching, the young bird flutters down to the water and begins to follow the example of its parents and forage from the surface or under the water for jellyfish, small fishes and small crustaceans like euphausiid shrimp and amphipods.
As with other bird species that nest in the Bering Sea, Parakeet auklets are being affected by the warmer temperature of the seawater caused by Climate Change. Warmer water temperatures reduce the fertility of the ecosystem, meaning less food for these seabirds. The introduction of rats and Arctic foxes to some islands have also reduced their population there.
The Yup’ik name for Parakeet auklet I was given in Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay is Taituiq, in reference to its foggy or misty nesting habitat. Since Taituk means fog or mist, hence “bird of the fog or mist.” The Nunivak Island Yup’ik name for this auklet is Ciruraq, probably having something to do with their funny parrot-like face. The common English name, Parakeet auklet, refers to the bird’s resemblance to a small parakeet-like parrot. The name parakeet itself comes from the French word perroquet, which in turn means parrot. Finally, the bird’s scientific name, Aethia psitticula, means “diving parakeet.”
Something fascinating I learned about the bird’s ancient history is that the first generic auk fossils are from the middle Miocene Epoch (15 million years ago). The first Aethia auk fossils date from the late Miocene (8-13 million years ago), and the four Aethia auk species living today probably diverged from the former about 5 million years ago. So, they’ve been around in their present form for a long time – much longer than we have.