Pigeon Guillemot Qayagpagayuli

Original artwork by Frank Keim

by Frank Keim

While teaching in Hooper Bay in the early 1980’s, I would often ski out to the edge of the pack ice during late winter and early spring to photograph seal hunters in their kayaks. That’s where I saw my first Pigeon guillemots foraging, and I wondered why there? Later, I learned it was because the algal blooms under the pack ice were hosts to billions and billions of small crustaceans, small fish and other marine critters that fed on each other in what is called the marine food web. So, it was for the same reason that seals hunted there too. And therefore, seal hunters.

Like Common murres, Pigeon guillemots are in the auk or puffin family and can be seen in the Bering Sea at the edge of the pack ice or fairly close to shore where they prefer feeding in the shallower waters. They have been known to dive to depths greater than 150 feet, but prefer near-shore waters between 30-90 feet deep.

They walk better than most other auks and have an upright posture like murres, but their wings are shorter and rounder than those of other auks, allowing them to dive better than they can fly. When diving they propel themselves not only with their short wings, but also with their webbed feet, which is different from most auks that primarily use their wings to dive. They are also powerful surface swimmers, and fast fliers. Once they get into the air, they have been recorded flying at nearly 50 mph.

When they hunt, they search mostly on the sea bottom, or near the pack ice, where they probe rock and ice recesses and vegetation (including algal blooms) with their bills for small fish and crustaceans (including shrimp and crabs), sea worms, shellfish, snails and small octopus.

They start breeding when they are 3-5 years old, and sometime in April or May the male chooses a nest site, usually in a colony of other birds on a rocky cliff in a crevice or shallow cave among boulders, or in an abandoned burrow, or under driftwood or shore debris. Before bonding by a female with her potential mate, courtship displays by the pair include mutual circling, bill-touching and rapid zigzag chases on the water near their colony.

After the female settles on her mate, she makes a shallow scrape on the soil or mixed sand and gravel in or under her mate’s chosen nest site, which may be used over and over for several years. The Pigeon guillemot is one of the few members of the auk family that lays two eggs rather than just one. The eggs are creamy to pale blue-green with brown blotches near the large end.

Incubation is by both mother and father birds for 26-32 days, which is a long time for so-called altricial birds that are covered only with a little black down when they hatch and must remain in their nest area for another 29-54 days while they are fed by both parents who bring them small fish during all hours of the day. But finally, after that period they leave the nest, usually in the cover of darkness, scrambling or fluttering down to the water below. They start swimming and diving immediately, but are not capable of strong flight for another 2-3 weeks. During this time, they follow the example of their parents and begin to learn both how to forage and what to eat.

Although Pigeon guillemots are vulnerable to local threats such as oil pollution, gill-netting, and mammalian predators, their widespread distribution along the northern Pacific Ocean coastlines of North America and Asia decreases this vulnerability at the population level. That said, with continuing climate change and warmer air and water temperatures and the dwindling of the birds’ food stocks from the coastal areas where they feed, their populations will continue to decrease into the future. 

Their Yup’ik name, Qayagpagayuli, translates as “one who is good at calling loudly.” In this case, it means whistling or peeping shrilly. Listen to them sometime, and you’ll hear what I mean. Their scientific name, Cepphus columba, derives from the Greek kepphos, referring to a family of seabirds mentioned by the classical Greek scientist Aristotle that now includes auks and gannets. The species name, columba, is Latin for “dove” and was so named because the bird looks a little like a dove. The second part of their common name, guillemot, derives from the French name Guillaume, meaning William, who probably was connected with the bird’s early description.