Little auk (Alle alle)

Also known as: Arctic auklet, dovekie, little dovekie, sea dove
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCharadriiformes
FamilyAlcidae
GenusAlle (1)
SizeLength: 17 - 19 cm (2)
Wingspan: 40 - 48 cm (2)
Weight140 - 192 g (2)

The little auk is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The smallest of all auks, the little auk (Alle alle), also known as the dovekie, is a tiny seabird, around the size of a starling, with distinctive bold black and white plumage. Instantly recognisable, during the breeding season the little auk is almost entirely glossy black except for white underparts stretching from the belly to under the tail, a small white arc around the eyes, and white streaks on the wings (2) (3). At other times of the year, the white patches extend from the breast to the chin and throat and in a wedge shape along the rear of the head (3) (4). The juvenile little auk is similar in appearance to the adult, but with a more brownish, less glossy tinge to the black feathers, especially on the throat and upper-breast, and with a much smaller white arc above the eyes (2) (3). The little auk is a stout, compact bird, with a very small, robust, sparrow-like bill, which is so short and fat that the little auk almost appears to have no neck (3) (4) (5). Like other auks, the wings are small and the tail is short, and the legs are positioned to the rear of the body, giving the bird an upright posture as it walks or jumps agilely on its webbed toes (3) (6). The little auk typically swims low on the water in a characteristic horizontal position, and appears almost reckless in flight as it flies with rapid, insect-like, whirring wing-beats (3) (6).

During the summer the little auk breeds on islands around the Arctic, being found on islands in the Bering Sea across to northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, and northern Russia. A migratory species, before the onset of winter the little auk travels southwards, when it largely resides in low Arctic waters but may be found as far south as the United Kingdom and northeast USA (2) (3) (4) (7). The majority of the little auk’s population occurs in north-western Greenland, where as many as 14 million birds may be found during the summer, before wintering off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (4).

The little auk breeds in huge colonies, building its nests amongst boulders and crevices on coastal slopes and cliffs (2) (3) (7). The nesting sites are abandoned in August before the little auk spends winter at sea, typically residing where there is the greatest abundance of zooplankton, and only occasionally coming towards shore to feed or after being blown there during bad weather (5).

Feeding on a diet of tiny marine crustaceans, the little auk obtains is food by diving to depths of up to 35 metres, before using its natural buoyancy to swim upwards in a zig-zag pattern and capture its prey. This allows its prey to be backlit against the surface light, and the prey items are then caught in the little auk’s small, wide bill (3). The little auk often feeds at night, when its prey migrates to the water surface. In some parts of its range molluscs and small fish are preferred prey and are captured after a short, rapid pursuit through aquatic vegetation (3) (8). Breeding birds typically forage within 10 to 100 kilometres of colonies along ice edges, but at other times of the year the little auk floats passively on strong ocean currents, often with sustained flightless periods, feeding far out at sea (3). The little auk is the only auk species with a specialised, extensible pouch in the throat which is used to carry prey to nestlings (3). 

A highly gregarious species, the little auk breeds in huge, dense colonies, which comprise more birds than any other auk colony, with the timing of breeding varying across the species’ range (3) (7). Prior to the onset of breeding, massive, noisy flocks of birds gather on the water near to the colony, before flying in wide circles while emitting loud calls and gradually making their way to land. Competition for favourable nesting sites is fierce and can lead to fights between birds, with dominant birds chasing opponents in the air. Once a nest site is obtained, it is defended with territorial displays of head-bowing and upright walking with the back arched and the bill pointed upwards (3). The nest is a simple bed of pebbles in a sheltered crevice amongst a field of boulders, and the single egg is incubated for around 29 days by both the male and female (2) (8). The chick fledges after 27 to 30 days, after which it becomes fully independent and flies out to sea alone (2). 

Once the colonies are abandoned at the end of August, the little auk undertakes lengthy southward migrations. Typically it stays far out at sea, but after strong storms, weakened, starving birds are quite often pushed landwards and turn up in areas where they are not normally found (2) (3). One such notable occasion was in the winter of 1932-1933, when huge numbers of little auks washed up along the entire eastern coast of North America, with birds even being found on the streets of New York (8).

With a huge global population which likely numbers over 30 million birds, the little auk is an abundant species that lacks any known major threats to its survival (2) (3) (7). However, due to its rather docile nature while on land and the ease with which its colonies can be accessed, the little auk is quite intensively hunted in parts of its range, and in the 1980s as many as 500,000 birds may have been killed each year in Greenland alone, although today this exploitation likely numbers around 65,000 annually. The little auk is also extremely vulnerable to oil spills due to its surface feeding habits and, as a consequence, is the second most common species found oiled on beaches in Canada after the thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia), with as many as 60,000 to 80,000 little auks killed by oiling along the coast of Newfoundland each year. The little auk is also potentially threatened by toxic pesticides, which accumulate in its body tissues after eating contaminated prey, and by global climate change, which may alter the snow and ice cover around its breeding colonies (3).

While the little auk has not been the target of any known conservation measures, it has likely benefited from the enforcement of regulations preventing the discharge of oil by ships at sea. This species would also benefit from further studies into its populations and distribution as, at present, there is limited information on this, in part due to its crevice-nesting habits which makes it difficult to count the number of birds at a colony. In addition, to effectively enforce hunting regulations for the little auk, public education programmes may be required (3).   

For more information on the little auk and other bird species, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Montevecchi, W.A. and Stenhouse. I.J. (2002). Dovekie (Alle alle). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/701/articles/introduction
  4. Novia Scotia Museum – Dovekie (November, 2010)
    http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mnh/nature/nsbirds/bns0194.htm
  5. Bird Guides – Little auk (November, 2010)
    http://birdguides.com/species/species.asp?sp=063001
  6. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. BirdLife International (October, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3301
  8. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds: Dovekie (November, 2010)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dovekie/lifehistory