Dovekie (Alle alle)

The dovekie is important to Arctic ecology. The droppings of thousands of dovekies around a colony enrich the poor arctic soil with nitrogen and other nutrients, allowing huge clumps of mosses and lichens to grow in areas that would otherwise be barren.

Description

As its name suggests, the dovekie is a diminutive bird- it measures 19-23 cm, actually smaller than most doves and closer in size to a starling. In summer, the dovekie has a jet-black head, neck, breast and upper parts and white underparts. In winter, its breast, neck and the area behind its face change to white. It also has a few thin white streaks on its back year-round, and a very short, stubby bill.

Distribution

Dovekies are found throughout the far north Atlantic, as far east as Siberia, with the majority of their huge breeding colonies located on western Greenland. A few dovekies nest in isolated locations on the eastern Canadian Arctic islands, and many more may feed in Lancaster Sound and Baffin Bay. They winter off the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia beyond the limits of the sea ice.

Ecology

Dovekies are social birds and tend to fly in large flocks, bunched tightly together like starlings. They are also noisy, especially on their nesting grounds, where they emit a shrill, chattering sound. Although they have a limited range, large numbers of dovekies are often blown off course by ocean storms, and can be found weak and exhausted, a long way inland or far to the south of their normal ranges- one such bird was found in Cuba! Although it does not nest there now, a dovekie bone was found in 40,000 year-old deposits at Cape Storm, Ellesmere Island, possibly providing the earliest evidence of ice age bird life in the Canadian Arctic.

Like many alcids, dovekies nest in immense colonies on rocky cliffs, particularly those with jumbled rocks or talus slopes below them. Females lay one pale, bluish egg in a rock crevice, amongst cliff rubble, or occasionally in a burrow, and incubate it for about 3-4 weeks. The young take about 4 weeks to fledge. Little other information is available about the dovekieís breeding habits, except that adults and young probably migrate together to their wintering grounds.

Like all alcids, dovekies are proficient swimmers and divers, feeding mainly on plankton and some small bottom-dwelling invertebrates- but also eating small fish. During winter storms, the plankton near the oceanís surface is sometimes dispersed or redistributed to deeper levels, causing a food shortage for the dovekies.

Although dovekies are numerous- the world population is estimated at 14 million- they are under significant pressure from predation. Many species, including fish, seals, gulls, falcons, foxes and people, prey on dovekies. This species is thus a major link in the Arctic food chain.