the bird from the top of the world

January 9, 2006

in Birds, Natural history

Over the weekend, an Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea) was found near Point Pelee, Ontario.  The sighting of one of these birds in the United States always creates a sensation, because it is a bird of the high Arctic, and fewer than 14,000 pairs are thought to exist.

I saw an Ivory Gull about 10 years ago, also in Ontario, on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River. I was jarred out of sleep by an early phone call on Christmas Eve morning by a birder friend. Holiday plans interrupted, we immediately went to the bird. We watched this delicate and apparently lost waif for quite awhile.  It seemed at home on the shifting river ice, feeding on the thawed octopus someone had tossed out for it to eat (we Detroiters are well-known for throwing octupi on ice). I remember wondering about this beautiful bird, how far it had traveled, and whether it would find its way home.

Perhaps I should make the trip to go see the Point Pelee bird. It may be my last chance. Not just to see it in the Great Lakes, but to see it anywhere on earth. For the Ivory Gull has recently undergone one of the most dramatic population declines of any bird species in North America, and nobody is quite sure why.

First, the evidence of the decline of the Ivory Gull was based on anecdotal reports.  Ivory Gulls breed in very rugged and remote locations, but are (or were) commonly seen during migration.  Therefore, residents of the High Arctic in eastern Canada were surveyed.  Those in Resolute Bay used to see Ivory Gulls at their local garbage dump, but none were seen in 2000-2002.  In the early 1980s, 200-300 Ivory Gulls were found at the Grise Fiord dump.  Numbers declined in the next two decades, and now the gulls are no longer found at the dump.  In Arctic Bay, where the gulls occur along the floe edge, comments from residents were somewhat mixed.  Arctic Bay is the home of  Clare Kines of The House and Other Arctic Musings, who I’m sure will comment intelligently on this post, as he has previously written on the lack of Ivory Gulls.

Follow up aerial surveys in Arctic Canada conducted through 2003 unfortunately corroborated the impressions of the residents.  Nearly all known Ivory Gull colonies were visited.  Several of the largest were completely devoid of Ivory Gulls, and others had significantly fewer gulls than previously observed. Some new colonies were discovered, but they were sparsely populated. In all, the surveys recorded an 80% decline in the number of nesting Ivory Gulls since the early 1980s.  While it is conceivable that the birds moved completely out of the eastern Canadian Arctic, it is unlikely, as Ivory Gulls rarely move more than one or two kilometers when they change colony locations.

Ivory Gulls also nest in the Russian and Norwegian Arctic islands, but a lack of funding has prevented a full census since the mid-1990s.  The last survey of a major breeding region in Russia’s western Franz Josef Land in 1996 came up empty.

There are many suspects in the decline of the Ivory Gull, but none hold the smoking gun. Climate change may be a factor.  The gulls nest at such high latitudes that the retreat of food sources along with offshore ice, which impacts other Arctic seabirds during the breeding season, probably does not effect Ivory Gulls.  But the increased sea ice on their wintering areas due to changing regional temperatures may be starving them.  Hunting could be reducing Ivory Gull numbers, but most Arctic residents don’t harvest them regularly.

A serious threat is chemical contamination. Arctic animals carry higher loads of toxins — pesticides, lead, mercury, and PCBs — than nearly any other creatures on earth.  These airborne chemicals, which will volatilize in most climates, finally settle only in very cold conditions like those found in the Arctic.  They quickly accumulate in the food web.  Animals near the top, even Ivory Gulls which often feed on seal and whale blubber, concentrate these toxins at startling levels. Coincidentally, I have just started the book Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning Of The Arctic chronicling this situation; I will review it when I’m finished.  From what I’ve read so far, it seems a good bet that toxic burdens are hindering reproduction or survival of Ivory Gulls, especially if the birds are stressed by changing climatic conditions.  The same air currents that helped bring us this special visitor have also provided the Arctic with continued malignant doses of our most unwanted poison pollution.

For the majority of us, the dire problems in the Arctic are “out of sight, out of mind.”  That is, until a pure white bird comes along, an emissary from the top of the world, and reminds us that faraway lands are only wingbeats away.

Gilchrist, H.G. and M.L. Mallory.  2005.  Declines in abundance and distribution of the ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) in Arctic Canada. Biological Conservation 121:303-309.

Haney, J.C., and MacDonald, S.A. 1995. Ivory gull, Pagophila eburnea. In: Poole, A., and Gill, F., eds. The Birds of North America, No. 175. Philadelphia: The Birds of North America, Inc.

Krajick, K. 2003.  In search of the Ivory Gull.  Science 301:1840-1841.
Mallory, M.L. , H.G. Gilchrist, A.J. Fontaine, and J. A. Akearok.  2003. Local ecological knowledge of ivory gull declines in Arctic Canada. Arctic 56: 293-298.

Photos courtesy Environment Canada.

P.M.Bryant January 10, 2006 at 4:58 pm

Excellent post. A good reminder on how little we know about so many of the other creatures that inhabit our planet.

"Nearly all known Ivory Gull colonies were visited. Several of the largest were completely devoid of Ivory Gulls, and others had significantly fewer gulls than previously observed. Some new colonies were discovered, but they were sparsely populated. In all, the surveys recorded an 80% decline in the number of nesting Ivory Gulls since the early 1980s. While it is conceivable that the birds moved completely out of the eastern Canadian Arctic, it is unlikely, as Ivory Gulls rarely move more than one or two kilometers when they change colony locations."

How conceivable is it that major Ivory Gull colonies could be missed by this survey? Since colonies that move more than a few kilometers would, in principle at least, be harder to find.

Nuthatch January 10, 2006 at 6:23 pm

That particular search — of the Canadian Arctic — was very thorough. They did a literature search and personal interviews and hit the majority of colonies that had ever been mentioned. Then they went quite far afield looking for others, first more than 300 alternative appropriate nesting sites, followed by systematic repeated transects. This was how 14 new colonies were located (all within 5 km of previous sites), but there were few gulls nesting in any of them. Very sobering.

Alan January 10, 2006 at 9:04 pm

Very disappointing news. Yet, I think it would be hard to mobilize the hard-core birding community to take this on as a conservation issue worthy of its attention. Call me cynical, but too many times have I seen birders forget the obvious (saving habitat) while shoving off to motor somewhere distant in search of another life list bird.

Clare January 11, 2006 at 7:57 am

Oh oh. "Comment intelligently". I think I've got the commenting part down, it is the intelligently I'm worried about.

I could have sworn I've posted on the Ivory Gull's decline before but after searching my archives I see I apparently haven't. Although most of the evidence for their decline is anechnotal it is pretty persuasive. As few as 10 years ago Ivory Gulls were apparently a regular visiter to the Hamlet here, often being seen at the shore, feeding on seal remains etc. Since I arrived in 1999 I've yet to see one in town. We have no difficulty finding them on our spring trips to the Floe Edge, or seal hunting, but there are never many. Usually just a pair at a time.

I do know that prior to the survey in 2003, elders and others were interviewed as to the location of historic sites, and that the local wildlife officer spent a great deal of energy trying to locate breeding colonies. The surveys were done by helicopter at the Brodeur Penisula, and when I had spoke to everyone involved they had not found a single colony.

They had also spoke to a couple of firms doing diamond exploration, who have covered much of the Brodeur penisula, however they advised they hadn't seen any. I've since come to question that however as a friend who worked with one of the firms told me about several "seagulls" nesting near their camp on the Brodeur. The gull most likely to be nesting on that high plateau would be the Ivory Gull. I imagine it wouldn't be in the best interest of a company hoping to establish a mine to report on a colony of endangered birds nesting at the location.

In terms of the cause, it is so hard to pin down. I've heard speculation on 1) the lack of multiyear ice – which harbours more of the invertebrates that they feed on. 2) Hunting. The inuit of Canada do not hunt gulls, they do collect gull eggs however. Greenlanders do hunt Kittiwakes however, and I have heard that they take Ivory Gulls incidentally to this harvest. It would seem that chemical pollutants are the most likely culprit, but apparently little has been done to study this.

I had read recently that there may be a major shift in the location of Ivory Gulls, and that the situation may not be as dire as it seems. I've only made a cursory search for the article (on a Government web site) but haven't located it again.

And at the risk of being blog whorish I do have a short video of an Ivory Gull which is at

The link can be found listed under My Podcasts on my sidebar.

As far as my own anecdotal evidence go. I can tell you that on a ten day trip from Greenland to Nanisivik, I saw only about 20 Ivory Gulls, the majority of which were in Maxwell Bay on Devon Island. I never tire of seeing them up close while out on the land.

Nuthatch January 11, 2006 at 8:58 am

Thanks so much, Clare. Both thorough and intelligent!

P.S. The Pelee Ivory Gull is still there, although we are having a heat wave with an expected high near 50F today. This can't be too comfortable for it.

I have also come to learn that the April issue of Birder's World magazine, an excellent publication, will have a feature on the Ivory Gull decline. I'll post a notice here in the comments when the issue comes out.

P.M.Bryant January 11, 2006 at 10:30 am

Thanks for the response, Nuthatch. I've skimmed over the Mallory 2003 article that you linked to and learned even more about this species that I'd never heard of before. Even 20 years ago, the population of Ivory Gulls in Canada was estimated to be only 2400 or so. So this bird was never very common, but is obviously even more extremely hard to find these days.

It must be quite special to have one hanging out not far away from where you live.

P.M.Bryant January 11, 2006 at 10:31 am

By the way, is the text on the blog red now, or are my eyes (or my browser) deceiving me?

Nuthatch January 11, 2006 at 5:07 pm

Geez. It's only red in Explorer, not Firefox or Netscape. I'll see what happened…

HÃ¥kan Karlsson January 16, 2006 at 5:32 am

On September 23th 2005 we finally reached the ice edge. We had spent the last 5 weeks in the polar ice onboard the swedish icebreaker Oden participating in the Beringia 2005 expedition (organized by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat). Our project (lead by Thomas Alerstam, Lund University) focused on the behaviour of migratory birds and bird species diversity (although sea mammals were also censused during the trans Arctic leg of the expedition).
When leaving the ice we first headed towards Franz Josef Land and later Svalbard.
We were very pleased to find the Ivory Gull being one of the most numerous birds in this region. Both adult birds and juveniles were present in the wake of the ship and seen flying in the distance (or just passing the ship). The Ivory Gulls always flying a bit higher than the others as in a constant scanning mode.

You are very welcome to visit our weblog from the expedition on:

panasianbiz July 21, 2006 at 5:48 pm

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research and found myself caught up in your informative and deeply affecting discussion. Your upcoming book sounds fascinating as well.

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