Because seabirds are a group of birds that are adapted for life at sea, they are important for many coastal cultures, particularly in more northern coastal regions where seabirds are most abundant and diverse.
Cultures from west to east reported to have hunted seabirds include the Coast Salish, Haida, Tlingit, Inuit, Maliseet, Micmac (Mi'kmaq) and Beothuk [1-8].
Seabirds were important to the Coast Salish food system. Individual bands would own nesting-colonies, harvesting the birds and eggs during the breeding season. The meat and eggs were eaten and sometimes traded . In spring and summer, seabirds were also important to the food systems of the Haida and Tlingit of Southeast Alaska .
Inuit hunted seabirds throughout the year with bird darts and throwing boards, or with snares, bows and arrows, bolas or nets. Bag nets, long poles or multi-pronged spears were sometimes used along the water’s surface [3-5]. Some cultures in the North would lower themselves down a cliff, or venture up the cliffside to obtain seabirds from their nesting places in high rookeries. Greenland Inuit hunters would throw pronged darts at their prey on the water or in flight. Sometimes seabird hunts were organized and led by a skilled hunter who taught the group how to surprise the birds .
In spring, the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy would make trips to a nearby island to hunt seabirds . To the Micmac, July was known as “sea-fowl shed feathers”. This summer molting period was a good time to hunt seabirds, as they were temporarily unable to fly away . Seabirds were also valued by the Beothuk who used the meat, eggs and feathers [7, 8].
The Coast Salish boiled fresh and dried seabirds indoors or roasted the fresh meat over an open fire [1, 7]. Meat was also baked or steamed in an outdoor pit: the meat was buried in hot embers and earth until it was fully cooked. This method kept the meat tender and juicy .The Beothuk boiled seabirds in soup. Large birch bark pots were filled with water and hot stones to cook the meat .
Individual bands of Coast Salish owned nesting colonies of seabirds. They would harvest the nests every year, bringing the eggs home to their families or using them for trading . Seabird eggs were important to the food systems of the Tlingit and Haida . In spring, the Tlingit gathered seabird eggs from the outer rocks, and ate them fresh [9, 10].
In summer, Greenland Inuit also gathered the eggs of seabirds. Men collected the eggs during hunting trips; women took their families to look for seabird eggs when the opportunity arose. In the Arctic, men would lower themselves down the side of a cliff or would climb upwards in search of nests. Many full barrels of eggs could be collected this way. The eggs were preserved in oil for later eating .
The Beothuk also valued seabirds for their eggs. The eggs found in high rookeries were eaten both fresh and preserved. Sometimes, the eggs were mixed with the fat or liver of seals, with fish or other meats before stuffing into seal intestines for sausage-making. The sausages were kept for times of scarcity. Eggs were also preserved by boiling and crushing the yolks into powder. This method was favoured, as the yolk powder was easily carried and served as good nourishment. The Beothuk were also known to dry their boiled eggs after mixing them with caribou or seal fat. This mixture was made into little cakes and laid in the sun to dry [6, 7].
Uses other than food
Seabirds were important not only for food, but also for their skin, bones, beak and feathers. The Haida and Tlingit made clothing and bags with the skin. The bones were carved into needles, tubes and whistles. The beak and feathers were used as decorations .
1. Ashwell R: Food, Fishing & Hunting; Cooking Methods. In: Coast Salish: Their Art, Culture and Legends. Volume 1st edition, edn. British Columbia: Hancock House Publishers Inc.; 1978: 28-55.
2. Moss ML: Haida and Tlingit use of seabirds from the Forrester Islands, Southeast Alaska. Journal of Ethnobiology 2007, 27(1):28-45.
3. Birket-Smith K: The Struggle For Food. In: Eskimos. edn. Rhodos: The Greenland Society with the support of The Carlsberg Foundation and The Ministry for Greenland; 1971: 75-113.
4. Weaver B: Canadian Inuit Food and Foodways. In.; 1992.
5. Damas D (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5: Arctic. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1984.
6. Trigger BG (ed.): Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1978.
7. Marshall I: Food. In: The Beothuk of Newfoundland: A Vanished People. edn. St. Johns: Breakwater Books; 1989: 26-29.
8. Pastore RT: Shanawdithit's People: The Archaeology of the Beothuks. St. Johns: Atlantic Archaeology Ltd.; 1992.
Seabird is a collective term used to describe a diverse, abundant, and widespread group of birds that are adapted for life at sea. Seabirds are more abundant in polar than in tropical waters, but are much less diverse in the northern than in the southern hemisphere. Worldwide, birds commonly referred to as seabirds include around 15 families and more than 250 species, more than a quarter of which are known to occur in Canada. Generally, seabirds found in Canada either nest in the eastern Arctic and spend the winter off the Atlantic coasts of Canada and the United States or nest along the Beaufort Sea and in the central High Arctic and spend the winter in the Pacific. Seabirds breeding in Canada and feeding exclusively at sea include many species of auks and murres, a few species of puffins and albatrosses, and one fulmar species.
Seabirds are closely associated with salt water and most species have webbed feet that aid in surface movement, diving, and swimming. Because of their association with salt water, many seabirds have specialized salt glands that help them to excrete the salt they ingest through drinking and feeding. The feathers of most seabirds are not as colourful as other bird groups, with bright coloration often restricted to the beak and legs. Seabirds vary greatly in size and shape. In general, auks, murres, and puffins, have a short and wide, often stubby bill, short wings, short legs that are placed far back, and a medium size, but chunky body. In contrast, albatrosses and fulmars have a long and narrow, often hooked bill, long wings and legs, and a large relatively slender body.
Seabirds feed mainly on small fish and zooplankton (very small, shelled invertebrates), but can also feed on other birds or small mammals, and tend to have a generalized diet incorporating a wide range of prey type and size. Albatrosses and fulmars are often seen hovering over the sea or floating on the surface grabbing food from or below the surface, sometimes making short and shallow dives to catch prey, whereas auks, murres, and puffins are adept swimmers and divers pursuing fish prey under water, sometimes at depth over 60 m for a few minutes. All seabirds must return to land to breed. Generally, seabirds are long-lived, monogamous birds that breed late in life and have few young, in which they invest a lot of parental care. Seabirds are mostly colonial, form some of the world’s largest bird breeding colonies, occasionally exceeding millions of birds. Some seabird species undergo long migrations before and after the breeding season, while other species migrate only short distances or do not migrate at all.
Gaston AJ: Seabirds. In.: Minister of the Environment, Canadian Wildlife Service; 1995.