Recalling fond memories of eiders


It’s getting to that time of year when I air out my down-filled sleeping bag. No big field trips are planned for this year, but I do like to spend a few nights in the woods, a campfire going, with no phones (no, not even a cell phone), no television and no mosquitoes.

Recently I have been enjoying a book by Jared Diamond, published by Allen Lane of Penguin Books, titled “Collapse” with the subtitle “How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.” The whole book is fascinating, easy to read and thought-provoking, but for me the highlights were in his dealing with the Norse settlements that lasted for several hundred years in Greenland, starting from before the arrival of Columbus to North America, until their collapse, perhaps from starvation, or maybe from fighting among themselves, or from fighting with the Inuit.

Reading the book started off a whole chain of personal memories: I first went into the Canadian Arctic with Peter Driver, then a graduate student of McGill University, Montreal. That was in 1958. I went again to the Arctic with Peter in 1959. He was doing research into the behavior of the eider duck (Somateria mollissima). The first half of the scientific name comes from the Greek “somatos,” meaning body, and “erion,” meaning wool or down, while “mollissima,” from Latin, means very soft.

The drake in his breeding plumage is a striking black and white, with patches of pastel green on the neck and cheeks and a delicate creamy pink wash on his breast and lower neck. The female’s plumage is for camouflage, a mottled, streaked brown. They are diving ducks, and nest on the ground. As they nest in cold areas of the world, the female plucks soft down from her breast to line the nest. Eiders nest in colonies, sometimes among arctic terns and other sea birds.

Peter got his Ph.D. from this research, and in 1974 published a book called “In Quest of the Eider” with the Saturn Press Limited, London, from which I borrowed the photographs printed with this article. (It is a great book about eider behavior and biology, and about our escapades together, when I was in my late teens and Peter, in his late 20s.)

Peter imprinted his eider ducklings by being the first to greet them when they hatched, in a similar process to that of the great scientist Konrad Lorenz, who first worked with mallard ducklings. (Peter had assisted Dr. Lorenz in research at the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, U.K.) When eider ducklings first emerge from their eggs, they make a charming little bobbing motion, a bow in reverse. This motion is a continuation of behavior from the upward pushing motion of the bird’s beak in the egg, as it fractures the shell in order to emerge. When Peter was there to greet the little birds with a similar motion, they became convinced that he was their mother and, from then on, would follow him everywhere.

While we were on the Belcher Islands, Peter told me of how the Norse, especially Icelanders, would make small open-topped rock shelters to encourage the eiders to nest on small islands. He said that in Iceland they might have had up to 12,000 nests in one eider “farm” from which the down was collected after the birds had left.

I remember things like that.

A few years later, I was a member of the Devon Island Expedition, and for one month in the summer, I helped Dr. Gordon Lowther, who was doing research into the ancient hunters who crossed into North America from Asia in periodic waves of immigration ending with the ancestors of the modern Inuit. We traveled on foot along the north coast of Devon Island, finding lots of sites particular to the small tool-making culture known as the “Dorset Culture” and of the whale and walrus-hunting Thule people, who came later, bringing their advanced techniques of igloo-, dogsled- and kayak-building. The Thule also brought the collapsing toggle-headed harpoon, with which, together with kayaks working in cooperation with the large umiak skin boats, they could even secure and kill bowhead whales, whose massive ribs and jaw bones were left on many sites along the coast where they had been used to make struts and ridges for the Thule’s round stone-walled houses.

One day when walking along a gravelly ridge, part of a raised beach that I thought might once have been a small skerry, I noticed some strange, low objects on the ground. At a closer look they turned out to be little open-topped boxes made of rocks, now lichen-covered and filled with earth and looking to be at least as old, if not older, than the remains of a Thule village nearby.

Peter’s stories of how the Icelanders made nest shelters jumped to my mind as I called Gordon over.

We talked at length that evening: The Greenland Norse had once come hunting for polar bear skins and walrus and narwhal tusks during the summer, venturing way up into Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. Even in winter there was open water in the western reaches of Jones Sound, between Devon Island and Ellesmere to the north. This north coast of Devon Island had caribou, musk oxen and polar bears. Eiders and other sea birds were plentiful too. It could have been entirely possible that Greenland Norse camped here on a summer hunt and chose to collect some down, perhaps to make their own lives a bit more comfortable.

Jared Diamond’s book relates of encounters between the highly aggressive Norse and the kayak-paddling “skraeling,” as they called the Inuit. (In fact, the Norse left notes on how the Inuit bled when struck with a weapon!)

According to Diamond’s research, the Norse were in the area before the Inuit and encountered them as they were spreading east. Certainly, we found extensive Thule dwellings on that Devon Island coast — one village with several dozen houses and masses of bowhead bones.

Tough as the Norse might have been, they rowed slow, heavy wooden boats and did not know the use of the Inuit “throwing stick,” a short grooved tool into which a harpoon or a lighter bird dart is fitted to extend the length of the forearm, greatly increasing the speed and range of the projectile when thrown. With their greater numbers, fast kayaks and skill with harpoons, bird darts, and spears for land animals, not to mention their short but powerful little hunting bows, the Inuit must have been dangerous foes if aroused. From what Diamond writes, the Norse were bad enough in their lethal quarrels among themselves, let alone with strangers of another race.

Reading a good book and airing out a down sleeping bag all bring back memories and a sense of wonder, not to mention a longing to return to the Arctic.