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Dovekie Life History



Dovekies nest in the Arctic on coastal cliffs, in the rocky scree below the cliffs, on small rocky islands, and on nunataks (rocky islands within large glaciers). These sites generally offer protection from strong winds and from predators. They breed in the High Arctic, often near the edge of sea ice, where currents and nutrients provide excellent foraging. After the breeding season, Dovekies move southward toward the edges of the continental shelf, where upwelling nutrients support abundant prey. They are especially numerous in winter on the Grand Banks, the Labrador Shelf, and the Scotian Shelf, all east of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. In the eastern portion of the species’ range, some Dovekies may also overwinter in polynyas—open areas in the pack ice.

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Aquatic invertebrates

Dovekies forage by diving underwater to capture small marine animals. They use their wings for propulsion and steer with their feet. In many cases, the birds dive deeply (down to 100 feet), then capture prey one at a time as they ascend rapidly in a zig-zag pattern toward the surface. They eat mostly planktonic crustaceans, mostly copepods, but also amphipods and euphausiids. They also eat pteropod mollusks and small or juvenile fishes such as snailfish and Arctic cod. They may feed at night as well as during the day. When feeding young, Dovekies may fly more than 60 miles to bring food back to chicks, carrying the prey in a specialized pouch in the throat. In shallow water, Dovekies sometimes forage along the sea bottom.

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Nest Placement


Nests are usually set 1–3 feet deep in rocky crevices of cliffs, islands, talus slopes, and scree.

Nest Description

Nests are usually a small layer of pebbles, sometimes covered with lichen or grasses.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:

Pale bluish green, sometimes with subtle blotches.

Condition at Hatching:

Covered in grayish-black down, need brooding from adult to stay warm.

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Surface Dive

Dovekies are gregarious birds throughout the year. Before the breeding season begins, they gather in the thousands off their breeding areas and begin group flights, calling loudly and flying in large circles as they make their way toward the nest sites. Such flights continue at the colony and right through the nesting season, and they are most intense during low light levels. Dovekies appear to be monogamous in their mating system, and most repartner with their mate of the previous season. When male and female return to their nest site, these tiny birds begin a series of frankly adorable courtship behaviors that involve bobbing and bowing the head, touching and rubbing bills, as well as “butterfly” flights with exaggerated, slow, deep wingbeats. Both adults share incubation and chick-rearing duties. Subadult birds not yet old enough to breed often gather in small groups called “clubs” in the colonies. After the young have fledged, Dovekies gather into large flocks for the gradual southward migration toward wintering areas, where they remain in flocks all season.

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Low Concern

Dovekies are still abundant, although they are vulnerable to a variety of pressures. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 17 million birds and rates the species an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Still, tens of thousands are killed in annual hunts in Greenland each year, and similar numbers are lost to oiling, a result of offshore drilling and oil dumping at sea. Dovekies also concentrate heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxins in their fat, muscle, and organs to a greater degree than most other seabirds studied. Climate change is likely to affect ocean temperatures, alter currents, and change distribution of their prey species.

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Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Montevecchi, William A. and Iain J. Stenhouse. (2002). Dovekie (Alle alle), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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Learn more at Birds of the World