National Geographic : 1936 Jan
BIRDS OF THE NORTHERN SEAS* BY ALEXANDER WETMORE Assistant Secretary, Smithsonian Institution AUTHOR OF "THE EAGLE, KING OF BIRDS, AND HIS KIN," "SEEKING THE SMALLEST FEATHERED CREATURES," ETC., IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE GRAY, misty fog over a restless sea, land concealed somewhere in the haze, an occasional clumsy, heavy bodied bird indistinctly seen as it blundered away from our ship-this was my introduc tion to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, and to one of the most interesting groups of sea fowl that I have known. The revenue cutter Tahoma moved at half speed, with all hands watching for some landfall ahead that might direct our course through Unimak Pass. The air came damp and cold against our faces. Suddenly the fog lifted to reveal Tigalda Island, the desired landmark, and on all sides endless thousands of birds scattered near and far to distant horizons. Large-billed puffins in pairs sat near one another on the water, tiny auklets rested in flocks, and occasional groups of dark backed murres swam over the lifting swell. As the ship bore down upon them, some, after momentary hesitation, dived with hastily beating wings and darted away in submarine flight. Others spattered off, striking the water with broad, webbed feet, until their heavy bodies had sufficient mo mentum to allow them to rise in the air, when the feet were drawn back beneath the tail and the birds flew swiftly away. SHEEPLIKE, THEY FOLLOW THE LEADER If one bird of a group started across our bow, its companions followed, this follow the-leader course continuing until those in the rear were forced to dive to avoid strik ing the steel side of the ship. In the background were huge, black cliffs, and towering, snow-capped moun tains rising from rocky shores or grassy slopes of vivid green. In the thrill of an ticipation of what lay before us, the mo mentary discomforts of the stormy passage that had brought us across the Gulf of Alaska were forgotten. The auks, murres, and puffins (family * This is the twelfth article, illustrated by paint ings by Maj. Allan Brooks, in the important GEO GRAPHIC series describing the bird families of the United States and Canada. The thirteenth article, with color plates from paintings by Major Brooks, will appear in an early number. Alcidae) are found only in the Northern Hemisphere and are most abundant in the subarctic area. Some range south into re gions of temperate climate, principally in the Pacific Ocean, but none penetrates as far as the Tropics. Twenty-three species are known, with 14 additional subspecies or geographic races. Most of these various kinds are found at some season in North American waters, only a few being restricted entirely to the shores of the Old World. All are maritime and come to fresh water only by chance. Without exception, members of the auk family have heavy bodies, small wings, and broadly webbed feet set far back on the body. The plumage is dense and water proof, and the birds are among the most expert divers, using both wings and feet in progression beneath the water. Their food, taken entirely from the sea, includes small fish and crustaceans. BODIES BUILT FOR DEEP-SEA DIVING In search of food they often dive to con siderable depths, where the heavy salt water of the sea subjects them to power ful pressure. To protect the vital organs against this, the lower margin of the breast bone is extended in a flat plate of bone and cartilage over the upper part of the abdo men to serve as a buckler. Birds of this group are true mariners, and for much of the year they live at sea, feeding and sleeping on the water. Only in the nesting season do they resort regularly to land; then they frequently gather in extensive colonies. Rocky coasts and lonely islands form their haunts at this time, as there they have a better chance to escape their natu ral enemies. The murres and guillemots nest on open ledges. Others, such as the puffins and auklets, prefer underground burrows, or crannies deep in piles of rock. Sometimes they nest in caves or under bushes. Many of the auklets are nocturnal, and they may be so retiring that their abun dance is often unsuspected by those who visit their breeding places only by day.