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If there’s one area on the planet that fascinates me more than any other, it’s the Arctic. Here, the unique ecosystem is made up of cold-loving plants, specially adapted mammals, and of course, birds that help to maintain the delicate balance of the Arctic ecosystem.
With around 200 species of bird calling the Arctic home, this demonstrates how they contribute to the biodiversity here. And while food availability may be sporadic and the weather harsh, these avian species have special adaptations that help them to survive.
Physical Adaptations of Arctic Birds
Living in the Arctic is no mean feat; this is one of the harshest places on earth in terms of the weather. For starters, things can be pretty cold, especially in winter, when temperatures often plummet below zero. In fact, the average winter temperature here is around -22°F (-30°C )! As a result of this, birds have had to adapt to the cold in order to maintain their body temperature and stay alive.
What’s more, flying in the Arctic can be tricky as there are often severe winds. Not only does flying in these conditions cause heat loss, but it can also make it difficult for Arctic birds to find food.
When you think of the Arctic, you may imagine a lot of precipitation, especially in the form of snow. There’s around 49 inches (124 cm) of snow and rainfall each year in the Arctic, but much of the water here is either frozen or salty, making it difficult for birds to find a fresh drink.
If all of that wasn’t enough to contend with, Arctic birds are preyed on by many predators, including foxes and skuas. In order to remain safe, they need to conceal themselves via camouflage.
Specialized Feathers & Down
One of the best forms of defense against the extreme Arctic weather are feathers. All birds have them, but Arctic birds have specially adapted feathers and down that act as insulation against the cold. Their downy feathers grow very close to the body to avoid cold air being able to get in. What’s more, the outer feathers are contoured in such a way as to make the bird more waterproof.
In some cases, particularly with water birds, the feathers also have an oily coating, further improving their water resistance. When in the air, Arctic birds benefit from interlocking feathers that resist the wind.
Not only do feathers prevent heat loss by having dense filaments to make them fluffy and trap air between them, but some species have specially placed feathers to keep them warm. For example, the willow ptarmigan has feathered feet. What’s also impressive about this species, and several others, is its ability to change its plumage according to the season.
In summer, these birds have a browner, mottled coloration but in winter, they turn white. This is ideal for camouflage purposes and is something we see in other species like the snowy owl.
Heat Exchange Mechanisms
If an animal is going to survive in extremely cold conditions, they need a way to maintain their body temperature. Many Arctic birds are able to do this thanks to a process known as countercurrent heat exchange. This works because of how the blood vessels are arranged in their limbs and feet. Blood from the heart is warm and flows down towards the feet through the arteries at the same time as the cooler venous blood flows back up, exchanging heat along the way to keep the bird at a stable temperature. By doing this, the bird ensures that its vital organs remain warm and functional. If cold blood were to reach them, it wouldn’t be good news!
Because of this process, the temperature between the bird’s core and its extremities is quite different, with colder blood being on the outside. As a result of this, the bird is less likely to lose heat through its skin, especially combined with those dense feathers. What’s more, since these heat exchange processes happen automatically, Arctic birds do not have to expend additional energy in order to stay warm.
When Arctic birds take to the skies, they have special heat exchange mechanisms that help them to stay warm. As they move, energy is generated from their muscles which is converted into heat. This heat then travels to the vital organs in order to ensure consistent warmth.
High Metabolic Rates
Having a high metabolism, which Arctic birds do, ensures that an individual is better able to generate its own heat. In order to achieve this, these birds must feed on a high-fat diet and their food is digested at a much faster rate, therefore quickly absorbing nutrients that generate energy and, therefore, heat.
Once this heat is created, it moves to the most critical areas, such as the vital organs and the brain. In turn, the bird is then able to forage for food and spend more time in the air compared to if it were having to expend additional energy trying to stay warm.
Controlling their Immune System
While the immune system is crucial to life, it does use up a lot of energy. Amazingly, Arctic birds have the ability to ‘turn off’ their immune systems in order to save energy during very challenging periods; for example, when food sources are limited.
This is a phenomenon that has been noted in the rock ptarmigan in Sweden whose immune responses seem to alter with the seasons and weather conditions. During the winter months, these birds spend far less energy on their immune systems which can be better used for other activities. However, in the warmer months, more energy is spent on immune responses.
Survival Strategies in Extreme Weather Conditions
As well as physical adaptations, Arctic birds have developed several behaviors that contribute to their survival.
With such harsh conditions in the Arctic, it’s tough for plants and animals to survive. But if our Arctic avian friends want to survive, they need access to food. Although this is difficult as food sources can be very limited.
It is therefore not uncommon for Arctic birds to have to fiercely compete with one other in order to get the best food. In cases where food availability is really low, these birds may need to migrate to find sufficient sustenance.
However, a lot of Arctic birds will also alter their diet according to seasonal availability. For example, they change from an insect and fish diet to a seed-based diet as availability fluctuates. There are even some species, like the lesser black-backed gull, that will feed on carrion when other food sources are scarce.
The type of food that each species eats will depend on its natural adaptations and abilities. For example, waterbirds that can dive have a much greater advantage than ducks that have to forage for vegetation on the surface.
Before migrating or the onset of colder weather, many Arctic birds will build up fat reserves as a way of storing energy during challenging periods.
Breeding & Nesting
The window of opportunity for breeding in the Arctic is far less generous than in other parts of the world. But this problem is solved by the precise timing of breeding in Arctic birds so that the birth of their chicks coincides with the greatest abundance of resources.
Speaking of resources, nesting spots are typically limited in the Arctic which can lead to intense competition between individuals. As a result of this, many species use unconventional nesting spots such as cliffsides and burrows to ensure their young are protected.
A lot of Arctic birds will breed early in the year, shortly after migration. This is common in many geese species that return to the Arctic as early as possible, feeding heavily in preparation for breeding.
When it comes to caring for the eggs and newly hatched young, there’s a great degree of dedication and responsibility involved on the parents’ behalf owing to the severe conditions and risk of predators.
Fortunately, Arctic birds have adapted to hatching pretty quickly and, once born, the chicks develop at a much faster rate. Many species of waterfowl and shorebirds have chicks that develop heavily in the egg so that, when they hatch, they’re soon able to walk or swim.
Birds all over the world migrate with the seasons, and this is no different in the Arctic. Since there are limited food resources in the Arctic, many species will move further south during the winter in order to access more food. This is known as fall migration and often involves birds moving over great distances. For example, the Arctic tern travels more than 18,000 miles (28,968 km) in its annual migration!
Some species, particularly water birds, complete what is known as a molt migration. This normally happens in the mid-summer, after breeding, and sees thousands of the same species gathering in one location where food sources are good and there is a lack of predators.
The reason for this is that many Arctic birds will molt their feathers and this requires additional energy and makes them more vulnerable. But in their new location, they’re less prone to predation and can complete their molt in time for the fall migration.
Arctic Bird Species
While the Arctic may present some severe challenges, that doesn’t mean that life can’t thrive here. With hundreds of avian species in the Arctic, this part of the world is brimming with life in the skies.
1. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
The snowy owl is a stunning raptor found in the Arctic where it remains for most of the year. However, individuals are known to move further south when food becomes limited. They’re well-equipped for the long cold Arctic winters with thick feathers that come right down to the legs and onto the feet.
Like many Arctic animals, the snowy owl changes color according to the season in order to blend in. In summer, their feathers take on a more brown hue whereas in winter, they become that iconic white shade we all know and love, often with brown flecks.
The snowy owl is an adept hunter that has large talons, allowing them to hunt for small mammals. However, these talons are also used in self-defense when individuals fight for dominance or territory. Although, compared to other species, these interactions are rare. When hunting, snowy owls also rely on their excellent vision to spot prey up to 300 feet (91 meters) away!
2. Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)
When I think about Arctic birds, the Arctic tern is usually one of the first that springs to mind. That’s because this is such an impressive species, if not only because of its massive migration. The Arctic tern is known to migrate at least 12,000 miles (19,312 km) for breeding to Antarctica, often further. The good news for the Arctic tern is that it only nests every two to three years. When migrating, these incredible birds use the magnetic pull of the earth to navigate as well as landmarks which guide them on their way.
As well as having the longest migration of all bird species, Arctic terns are impressive because of their ability to survive in harsh weather conditions. They have dense plumage to keep them warm as well as being excellent hunters, able to catch prey from the water with their sharp beaks and great agility.
If all of that wasn’t enough to impress you, consider the striking appearance of the Arctic tern. These aren’t large birds, growing to around 14 inches (36 cm) but they have a beautiful white body with a black cap and a deep red to orange bill, all finished off with a pretty forked tail.
3. Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
I remember watching an Attenborough documentary about puffins as a child, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since. These unique-looking birds are often seen in the tens of thousands along rocky Arctic coasts and one colony, in Witless Bay Ecology Reserve, is reported to number more than a quarter of a million! There’s strength in numbers!
The puffin has black and white feathers, but it’s their colorful bills and facial markings that really make them stand out. Some say they look like they’re wearing a clown mask! When breeding season comes around, these showy colors become even brighter in order to attract a mate.
Puffins are extraordinary birds that can live in excess of 30 years in the wild. They’re specially adapted to cold conditions with thick feathers and a high metabolism. They feed on a diet of mainly fish which they catch with their strong beaks and serrated tongues.
A baby puffin is known as a puffling, and females only lay one egg at a time, which can be as much as 15% of her own body weight! Once they’ve finished breeding, puffins molt and lose their flight feathers for a short period of time.
4. Black-Legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
The black-legged kittiwake is a type of seabird that inhabits the coastal areas in the Arctic and subarctic regions from the Pacific side of Alaska and around the world to Siberia. They nest in large colonies along the cliff sides and often choose locations where there is good access to food, like fish and invertebrates.
Since they need to spend a lot of time in the ocean hunting for food, it helps that their feathers are waterproof which prevents them from getting weighed down and losing body heat. What’s more, specialized glands secrete an oily substance that further enhances the bird’s resistance to water. When it comes to being in the ocean, the black-legged kittiwake is an impressive sight, with its streamlined body allowing for precise diving.
Black-legged kittiwakes are among some of the most beautiful Arctic birds with a white body and black tipped wings and legs. Interestingly, unlike many birds, the fourth toe at the back of the foot is reduced to a stump in the black-legged kittiwake.
5. Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)
The common eider is a type of sea duck that is found in Arctic and subarctic regions, along the coasts and around islands. Here, they can be seen nesting in both grasslands and rocky areas, where they line their nests with eiderdown taken from the breast of the female. This downy plumage also helps to keep the birds warm as well as waterproof feathers to keep them dry while hunting for crustaceans, mollusks, and small fish in the water.
Common eiders can be identified by their black and white feathers as well as a green nape. However, this is only seen in males with females having a browner, mottled appearance which helps them to blend in when nesting. Since these birds nest in large colonies, they’re afforded even more protection from predators.
The common eider is the largest species of eider and can grow to around 28 inches (71 cm) in length. They have a layer of dense body fat that helps them to stay warm and typically molt just after breeding, which renders them flightless until their feathers return. However, this doesn’t much affect migration as only some populations will migrate.
6. Sanderling (Calidris alba)
The sanderling is a species of wading bird that is often found along the sandy beaches of the Arctic and subarctic. Its unique sandy and white coloration helps it to blend in here, but its plumage is also dense enough to keep the bird warm. They also have streamlined bodies and are small in size which further serve as ways to withstand the extreme conditions.
That said, they only spend the summer in the Arctic for breeding and head south in winter, moving as far as South America to find food. During breeding season, they tend to opt for nesting spots with a lot of cover and can form both monogamous and polyandrous pairs. Males can become very aggressive and territorial.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the sanderling is how it feeds. These birds prey mainly on invertebrates that are buried among the sand, and they hunt for them by randomly probing the sand with their bills in hopes of pulling a tasty morsel out.
7. Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
The northern fulmar is a common sight in the Arctic, with many individuals remaining here year round. That said, some will undertake a migration in winter. Still, with humans offering food to these birds, there’s no need to go in search of a meal. According to reports, it’s this very activity that has caused a boom in the number of northern fulmars across the Arctic.
These birds have waterproof feathers that help them to stay dry as well as coloration that aids with camouflage. What’s more, since fresh water may not always be available, the northern fulmar has the amazing ability to drink seawater and excrete any excess salt from a gland in the nose.
While they are adept hunters, preying on fish, northern fulmars are opportunistic and are known to scavenge. However, this behavior does put them at risk of ingesting microplastics which could threaten their very survival.
Another interesting fact about the northern fulmar is that it will spray a foul-smelling oil out of the mouth when it feels threatened in order to ward off predators. However, this same oil is often used to feed the chicks or for adults when on long migrations.
8. Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)
The gyrfalcon is a large bird that grows up to 24 inches (61 cm) in length, making it the biggest species of falcon on the planet; not to mention it’s also incredibly powerful. These birds are among some of the best avian hunters in the Arctic and typically prey on smaller birds which they capture with their long, sharp talons.
Being a good hunter is one way to survive in the Arctic but the gyrfalcon, which is found in the Arctic and subarctic regions of Asia, North America, and Europe, is also equipped with dense plumage that serves to keep it warm. Its feathers extend down the legs which is great news for the winter as these are typically year-round residents of the Arctic where they can often be seen around cliffs where they nest and hunt for food.
In terms of coloration, these birds can be anywhere between dark brown and white but in any case, this works well for camouflage.
9. King Eider (Somateria spectabilis)
The king eider is a large seabird that can grow up to 28 inches (71 cm) in length. The males have a beautiful appearance that helps them attract a female and includes black and white feathers marked with iridescent green and a large yellow knob above the bill. Females, which are sometimes called queen eiders, have a coloration designed for camouflage and so, are less showy.
In the case of both genders, the plumage is very dense and downy, which ensures the bird stays warm in winter. However, there are some individuals that will seek out a more temperate climate in winter and migrate. When they do this, they’re known to move in massive flocks that number in the hundreds of thousands.
The king eider is typically seen along the coasts, where it nests in areas sheltered by rocks and creates a down-lined nest. Here, these birds also forage for invertebrates, crustaceans and other aquatic organisms.
10. Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea)
Ross’s gull is a small species of bird with gray and white plumage that changes according to the seasons. These birds are considered to be vulnerable, and it’s thought that only around 10,000 remain in the wild.
However, they are specially adapted to life in the Arctic with dense feathers that prevent heat loss. What’s more, Ross’s gull performs a lengthy migration between the tundra and the ice packs. During breeding season, it nests in large colonies on the tundra but, once the eggs are hatched, parents pay very infrequent visits to their chicks which often results in them being predated.
These birds feed on a varied diet of crustaceans, insects, and aquatic invertebrates, according to availability. They’ve been seen wading through the shallows in order to stir up potential prey.
11. Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)
The red phalarope is a species of wading bird that can be found in North America, Asia, and Europe across both Arctic and subarctic habitats. These small birds can be characterized by their bright red feathers which are displayed by the males during breeding season. As is the case with most other sexually dimorphic Arctic birds, the females’ coloration is much more subdued.
However, these amazing birds are able to adapt their color to their surroundings in order to better blend in. They’re usually found on the tundra where they nest close to a body of freshwater. Here, they use their special adaptations, such as lobed toes, to hunt for food. What’s really interesting is that they’re often seen foraging around gray and bowhead whales as these large aquatic mammals create pools where prey can be easily caught.
12. Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)
A small songbird, the Lapland longspur is found in North America and Eurasia and lives on the tundra. However, they will migrate during the winter to the Russian steppes. In breeding season, they not only move north but also alter their diet to mainly arthropods whereas at other times of the year, they will eat seeds and insects. Incredibly, these birds can eat between 3000 and 10,000 insects every single day!
Another interesting change during the breeding season is the plumage of the males, which changes color to black and chestnut. It’s thought that this helps them when it comes to finding a mate. On the other hand, the females develop a more subtle plumage that helps them to blend in and protects them as they nest among vegetation on the ground.
Males also make beautiful calls in the breeding season, which is different from the regular call of the Lapland longspur.
13. Razorbill (Alca torda)
The razorbill, so named because of its hooked upper bill, can be found around the northern oceans of the Arctic. These birds have a stunning appearance with black plumage and contrasting white markings.
Razorbills are incredible hunters in the aquatic environment, and they’re able to dive as deeply as 1,083 feet (330 meters) in order to find fish. That said, they also feed on marine invertebrates where necessary.
While baby razorbills cannot even fly when they fledge the nest, they’re resilient birds, and some individuals have been known to survive for more than 40 years!
The razorbill, a species of auk, can be found in coastal areas, particularly around cliffs and rock shores where they build their nests. They’re normally seen in large colonies, and pairs can breed up to 80 times a day.
14. Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea)
Seen nesting along the cliff sides and rocky ledges, ivory gulls are an impressive species with beautiful white feathers and a more pigeon-shaped body than other gulls. These birds are made for living in the cold and have insulating, dense feathers whose color also helps them to camouflage. Although this plumage doesn’t fully develop until individuals are around 2 years of age.
The ivory gull is found in the northernmost parts of North America, Europe, and Greenland where it forages for fish and invertebrates but is also known to scavenge carrion.
Ivory gulls are migratory but they do not travel as far as some other Arctic birds. Typically, they start their migration in the fall and move a short distance to the south.
15. Long-Tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)
The long-tailed duck is one of the most impressive looking birds in the Arctic, at least, the males are. Their plumage has a striking contrast of dark and light, whereas the females are much more subtle and designed for camouflage when nesting.
In order to stay protected from the harsh weather, long-tailed ducks have dense downy plumage underneath their upper feathers which helps them to keep warm. What’s more, they’re excellent foragers, so finding food where it may otherwise be limited becomes much easier. This is because of their diving abilities that allow them to hunt for mollusks and crustaceans which form the main part of their diet.
Long-tailed ducks have a longer breeding season than many other species and as such, may raise more than one brood at a time. Because of this, they tend to be one of the last birds to migrate in winter. During this time, as many as 4.5 million individuals may make their journey towards the Baltic Sea.
16. Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Found in the Arctic tundra in both North America and Europe, the snow bunting is a small species of passerine bird that is perfectly adapted to living in a cold climate. These birds have thick feathers that help to retain body heat and feed on a versatile diet that changes with the seasons and include seeds, plants, and insects. In order to increase their foraging success, snow buntings are often seen in flocks.
As well as adjusting their diet with the seasons, snow buntings also change their coloration in order to blend in with their surroundings. In the summer, during the breeding season, these birds appear browner. But as winter approaches, they’ll rub themselves on the ground to wear away the brown feathers and make way for the white ones beneath.
17. Thick-Billed Murre (Uria lomvia)
The thick-billed murre is a species of seabird from the auk family. It’s found across the Arctic regions in Eurasia and North America and is known for its unique appearance. This includes bold black feathers and a white underbelly with a thick beak, which is where they take their name. Their plumage is very thick in order to keep the bird warm, although they do migrate in winter.
In fact, thick-billed murres are known for their lengthy migrations. Even the chicks will take an epic journey, swimming up to 620 miles (998 km) right after they’re born.
Thick-billed murres mainly eat marine invertebrates and fish and are skilled divers, which allows them to efficiently catch their prey. These birds do not mate until they are four years of age and before this, may remain out at sea, avoiding nesting grounds altogether.
18. Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)
The black guillemot is a type of seabird that’s often seen along the rocky coastlines of the Arctic and subarctic. It’s common in both North America and Eurasia and can be identified by its’ black feathers and white markings on the wings. Moreover, these birds have distinct red feet.
Despite being relatively small birds, only growing to a maximum of 12 inches (30 cm), they have a long lifespan of up to 27 years! They feed on a diet of crustaceans, fish, and other small marine life and are fantastic divers, allowing them to catch their prey. Moreover, they’re able to stay underwater for up to 2 minutes at a time!
Black guillemots are often found in colonies which can number more than 10,000 in areas where there is an abundance of food.
19. Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus)
The glaucous gull is the second largest species of gull on the planet and is found in both the Arctic and the subarctic, along the coasts where it nests on rocky ledges and cliffs. These structures offer excellent protection for the eggs and young. However, these large birds are predators themselves and will often invade the nests of smaller birds to take their eggs.
Glaucous gulls are mainly white in color but have gray patches on the wings and back. While this does make them less camouflaged than other birds, records show that they can live up to 22 years in the wild.
Growing up to 30 inches (76 cm) in length, glaucous gulls need a lot of food, which is why they can sometimes be seen scavenging polar bear kills. While they are migratory, younger birds often take longer migrations than more mature individuals.
20. Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)
When thinking about Arctic birds, the willow ptarmigan is often one of the first that people imagine. Not only is it a well-known species, but it’s also a very interesting one that’s perfectly adapted to living in the Arctic. Because of these adaptations like the ability to change plumage color, feathered feet, and insulated feathers, these birds are year-round residents of the Arctic tundra.
They’re also very important to the health of this unique ecosystem because they are seed dispersers. They feed on a diet of leaves, berries, and buds and spend their time in groups of up to 2000, where they’ve been seen to actually play with one another.
When it comes to appearance, the willow ptarmigan is an impressive looking bird. They grow to around 26 inches (66 cm), and males develop a reddish color around the breast and neck during breeding season. The male’s body is largely mottled brown with a white underside and red markings around the eyes. Females tend to have a more subtle coloration for camouflage purposes when they’re nesting in the plants and rocks.
21. Arctic Redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni)
Arctic redpolls are a species of passerine bird that is found in North America and Eurasia on the Arctic tundra. These are seed-eating birds but, as food sources from birch and alder trees become sparser in winter, the Arctic redpoll will make a southward journey, typically around November, returning in early spring.
When foraging, these birds have the amazing ability to store seeds in a special pouch in the esophagus, which they can save for later when they find a safe spot to stop and eat.
The Arctic redpoll has streaked plumage, and males have red markings on the breast, rump, and forehead. Females are much paler, and this helps them to blend in when they’re nesting among the trees and shrubs.
22. Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)
Sabine’s gull, named after Joseph Sabine who discovered it in the 1800s, is a small bird that can be found on the Arctic tundra where it spends its breeding season. They build their nests on the ground by creating shallow depressions which they fill with leaves and other vegetation. Both parents care for the young and, if a predator approaches, the bird will create a distraction by pretending to be injured, drawing the predator away.
One of the most impressive things about Sabine’s gull is its appearance. With white plumage on the body and a black ringed neck with a gray head, they’re one of the most striking looking Arctic birds.
These birds migrate southward in the winter, with juveniles molting when they arrive. However, the adult birds molt into their winter plumage before the journey begins.
23. Red-Throated Loon (Gavia stellata)
The red-throated loon, as its name suggests, has a red/orange throat, which sets them apart from other waterbirds. Their gray feathers are super sleek, further enhancing their unique appearance, and they grow to around 26 inches (66 cm), making them one of the smallest species of loon on the planet.
These birds are found in North America and Eurasia in both Arctic and subarctic areas, where they spend a lot of time in the water. They use their streamlined bodies and webbed feet to help them dive for fish and invertebrates around their breeding grounds. However, in winter, some individuals will migrate in small groups, flying at up to 48 mph (77 km/h). Siberian populations may migrate as far as Europe.
Red-throated loons have pretty black and white stripes on the backs of their necks and appear to constantly be on the move when in the water, making the most of any foraging opportunity.
24. Little Auk (Alle alle)
The little auk is a species of seabird that can be found in the Arctic regions of both Eurasia and North America. Here, it breeds on slopes or cliffs but in winter, the little auk will migrate southwards and is a common sight in the UK and Europe.
A small species, these birds only grow to around 8 inches (20 cm) and are covered in dark feathers with white markings around the eyes, giving them a unique appearance.
Powerful swimmers and divers because of their streamlined bodies and webbed feet, little auks feed on a diet of marine invertebrates and fish. However, they’re not safe from predation themselves and are often hunted by humans in Greenland for the delicacy known as kiviak.
25. Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus)
The Arctic skua is a species of seabird found in the Arctic tundra, although sometimes it is called the parasitic Jaeger owing to its kleptoparasitic behaviors.
These birds primarily steal food from other bird species but are able to hunt for things like smaller birds, insects, and eggs. They’re incredibly agile, which means they’re great at hunting while in the air and will fly as far as the Southern Hemisphere in search of food during winter.
In terms of appearance, Arctic skuas are pretty beautiful with their sleek white and gray plumage and their robust bodies. While they are quite small in size, weighing no more than 15.9 ounces (451 grams), these birds have incredibly strong talons that allow them to catch surprisingly large prey.
Threats Facing Arctic Birds
While these fascinating birds are adapted to live in extreme conditions, this doesn’t make them exempt from certain threats. This can include the effects of climate change, pollution, and human activity that results in a loss of habitat.
Many of the birds in the Arctic rely on sea ice as part of their habitats but, as you’re probably well aware, sea ice is melting at an alarming rate. According to WWF, the Arctic is warming twice as quickly than anywhere else on the planet and, as such, this is causing a loss of 10% of the remaining sea ice every decade.
Because of this, these birds have fewer foraging opportunities, and the results are already being noticed. This lack of food is causing hundreds of Arctic birds to perish, and their bodies are being found strewn along the coastlines of North America.
What’s more, studies have shown that some Arctic birds are less tolerant to heat than we might have guessed. Some species even started to show signs of heat stress at temperatures as low as 69.8°F (21°C). Not only do these birds find it hard to cope with the demands of high temperatures, but this rise in heat also affects their behavior.
For example, it’s been seen that higher temperatures and earlier melting snow are causing Arctic birds to begin breeding prematurely. The problem with this is that there won’t be enough resources to sustain their young when they hatch. Moreover, seasonal cues that normally tell the birds it’s time to migrate are being disrupted, further altering their behaviors.
It’s not just the Arctic birds that are being affected by climate change; their predators are suffering too. As their habitat is being affected, predators are moving further north but this takes them right into Arctic bird breeding grounds. Research has shown that in the last 70 years, egg theft by predators like foxes has tripled.
There’s been a lot of talk about plastics entering our oceans, and this doesn’t just affect marine life; it affects Arctic birds too. Even in the most remote locations within the Arctic, toxins from plastics are being found in the eggs of Arctic seabirds. Further research was done on the northern fulmar and, compared to the 1970s, far more microplastics were found in the digestive systems of these birds.
Even where birds are not directly ingesting plastics and toxins, their prey might be, and then these contaminants are passed down through the food web. This also includes chemicals such as mercury, which are rising thanks to air pollution. These contaminants are also passed around through bird droppings, which move toxins from the water onto the land.
Oil spills are incredibly problematic for Arctic birds and other wildlife. This is not just because of the toxicity of the oil, which is a problem in and of itself, but also because the oil coats the birds’ plumage, preventing them from flying. If they can’t fly, they can’t escape predation or forage for food.
Breeding becomes more difficult as a result of pollution as birds are not able to find safe nesting spots. Much of this is because of human activity, such as gas and oil plants that are encroaching on the birds’ territory. Not only this, but exposure to certain chemicals can have a negative impact on the birds’ ability to reproduce and may result in eggs that are thinner and don’t offer as much protection as well as a decreased hatching success for the chicks. Where birds cannot reproduce, this has a direct impact on their populations.
Habitat Loss & Degradation
As I mentioned earlier, the construction of gas and oil plants, as well as things like mining, are having an effect on Arctic birds because these structures are encroaching on their habitat. This decreases nesting opportunities and foraging opportunities in equal measure. And it isn’t just industry where humans are causing an issue. Since the Arctic is a well-loved tourist spot, the very presence of humans is disrupting the natural behavior of these birds. In some cases, birds will even abandon their nests where they feel a threat from human presence.
But humans aren’t entirely to blame, nature is playing a role in habitat loss as well. For example, coastal erosion is eating into available nesting spots, and this is happening more frequently because of climate change. These areas also provide birds with feeding opportunities but these are slowly being taken away, especially when you factor in the melting sea ice.
Habitat fragmentation is also problematic for Arctic birds. When this happens, habitats are separated by infrastructure and other obstacles, limiting the available space for birds to feed, breed, and find a mate. As a result, birds are forced to mate within a smaller group which drastically reduces genetic diversity and weakens the population.