Birds in Kamchatka Peoples' Culture
18 May — 2022
Birds in Kamchatka Peoples' Culture

On May 14, Global Big Day was celebrated. It is widely known as the Birds and Birdwatchers Day. There are people who like to collect stamps, postcards, antique things... And there are people who collect impressions of bird watching and bird photos. And it is no less fascinating and useful occupation.

Today these people are called Birdwatchers.  They chose ornithology their hobbies. They observe birds with the naked eye or using binoculars and transmit information about meetings (in photos) to scientific centers, where they are processed. 

Thus, a simple hobby becomes an important tool in the study of ornithofauna and migration paths not just for regions, but for the entire world. But birds are a fascinating object to study not only from a biological point of view, but also from the point of view of art. In particular, it is interesting to study their impact on the life and culture of different peoples.


Birdwatchers are people who chose ornithology as their hobby. Photo - Dmitry Strakhov

The image of birds in world culture

Birds have been appearing in art since ancient times. These images are complex, composite and ambiguous. They can have either positive or negative connotation. Some birds may resurrect, such as the phoenix, or carry into the afterlife. In some stories, the bird is a friend and helper, in others — a cunning enemy. And for many indigenous peoples of Kamchatka, the crow — Kutkh — is the main deity, the creator of the Earth and the ancestor of all mankind. 

The image of birds is so complex and versatile for several reasons. First, birds are creatures that have conquered three of the four elements at once. They fly through the air, walk on the ground, many of them can swim. In ancient times, it was believed that under the sea there is the realm of the dead (the root "mor" in Latin means death, and Russian word "море" meaning "sea" is associated with this meaning). There are gods in the sky, and people on earth. Accordingly, birds can communicate with all of them, and that is why they played such a significant role. 

Second, the birds come out of the egg. The egg is an important metaphor. Many nations believed that our universe also emerged from an egg. Also, the egg is fragile and unstable, so it must be preserved. In addition, the egg is very nutritious and often the collection of eggs is the object of traditional nature management. 

Thirdly, for a long time people could not move quickly and freely. At a time when there were no cars, no planes, no ships, people especially admired the speed of the birds' flight and thought that the birds had circled the world and seen everything in the world. 

Fourth, for a long time, birds have served as a reliable source of protein, fluff, and feathers that have helped many peoples survive for hundreds of years.

Сбор яиц топорка

Egg is an important metaphor in the culture of many peoples, as well as one of the key objects of traditional nature management. Photo - Artem Komarov

Birds in Kamchatka Peoples' Culture

The history of ornithological research in Kamchatka region spans almost 300 years. Initially, the study of birds concerned, first of all, their practical application as a source of food (meat, eggs) and raw materials for the manufacture of clothing and household items (skins, feathers, bones).

Traditionally, Kamchatka natives, who lived near the bird islands, hunted the guillemot not so much for meat which is "hard and tasteless", but for skins. They used guillemot skin and other seabirds for fur coats. For example, Itelmens sewed parkas made of ducks, loons, geese, swans and seagulls. The Aleuts preferred parkas made of puffins. But first things first.  

The role of birds in the life of Aleuts 

The hunt for birds was an integral part of the original island culture. The Commanders' Aleuts are limited to colonial seabirds: puffins, guillemots, cormorant, gulls and fulmars. Earlier, the list included spectacled cormorant. But after 30 years of intense hunting, by the middle of the 19th century, the species was completely extinct. 

Late in the fall, the Aleuts hunted partridges. There is evidence that in the recent past almost everyone could catch a bird with an ordinary stick or stone. A random stone was enough to get a poorly flying cormorant. On the other hand, Aleuts preferred to catch noble geese carefully and to sell for "a solid reward". 

General often collective hunt was seasonal. Birds served as an important supplement to the basic diet in the hungry winter-spring period. Bird meat and eggs replenished the lack of vitamins, and in the 19th century and earlier — were the main early spring food.

At the end of May – the beginning of June, Aleuts traditionally collected eggs (of puffins, glaucous-winged seagulls, fulmars and guillemots). The later were the most valued. Because of their strong shells, they were stored in large quantities. The second place in quality was given to puffin eggs and gull eggs, and finally the fulmar ones. Kittewake eggs were collected rarely and in low numbers. As their shell cannot withstand even a small amount of pressure. Cormorant eggs were preferred not to be touched at all because their protein does not coagulate during heat treatment. 

In addition to meat and eggs, the Aleuts harvested feathers and fluff. Fulmar fluff was collected from May to June by plucking birds caught for food. It was used to stuff pillows and blankets. They were soft and warm, but with a characteristic smell. 

Skins and feathers were used to make traditional Aleutian clothes, and bones — for needles and other objects, including children's rattles. For example, parkas were sewn from the thick skins of puffins, and white feathers of cormorants' breeding attire were used to decorate clothes. The feathers of bright and rare birds acted as amulets. 

Before the arrival of Europeans, Aleuts made needles for sewing from wing bones of seagulls and albatrosses. Needles were made of radius, and the humerus was used for needlecases. The latter are still used by the Koryaks. In addition, seagull bones were used as part of composite hooks for large sea fish.  

Баклан, глупыш, топорок

Cormorants, fulmars and puffins are an integral part of the diet of fishermen living on remote islands.

Photo - Alexander Shienok, Dmitry Pilipenko, Evgeny Mamaev

According to the testimonies of Captain Vladimir Sarychev, collected during the "Journey of the Fleet through the northeastern part of Siberia, the Arctic Sea and the Eastern Ocean, for a period of eight years, during the Geographical and Astronomical Maritime Expedition, which was under the command of the fleet of Captain Billings":

"The needles of the Aleuts are bone without holes, and threads are attached to them. When they get an iron needle from the Russians, they always break its hollow part, and instead of sharpening the blunt end on the stone, they make a notch and so that you can tie a thread. Their own needles come from the bones of gull legs, of different sizes, thicker and thinner, judging by the sewing. The thinnest is used to embroider patterns produced with such art and cunning that no European gold stitching can compare with them. It is usually embroidered on the skin of a fairly hard, crafted leather took of a membrane, which can be found in the throat of birds. Instead of threads, goat wool is used; <…> Such patterns are embroidered with festive male parkas, slippers, belts and zarukavya used only during the dance. The parka or man's dress looks like a shirt, only there is no cut at the neck and the collar is round and standing, which is usually made of deer leather. Parkas are always sewn from skins of seabird, called puffins; decorated with goat hair and narrow straps carved out of seal leather. ”

Due to small production volumes to meet the domestic needs of Aleuts, traditional bird hunting has been least influenced by European culture. Since the bird colonies on the Commanders were numerous, and gunpowder was scarce and expensive, when hunting birds, it was not traditional to use guns, but simple arrows, bolases and nets. Successful capture required a good knowledge of animal biology and behaviour. 

As for folklore, ducks usually acted as guardians in Aleutian beliefs, sparrows were considered temporary guardians of the souls of the dead, and other birds that appeared in the wrong place were harbingers. Curiously, the signs associated with the crow did not survive. This bird is popular exclusively as a folklore trickster character.

The Role of Birds in the Life of Itelmens, Koryaks and Kamchatka Peoples

The role of birds in the life of other indigenous peoples of Kamchatka was not inherently different from the Aleutian tradition. Here, meat and eggs of birds were also used in food, hides, fluff and feathers. They were used to make clothes (including ritual and decorative).  Bones were for needles, hooks and other useful household  things. 

Russian ethnographer Vladimir Iohelson wrote: “The Koryaks do not like seagull meat, finding them tasteless, but when food is scarce, they are not neglected. In the early summer, before the fishing season, Koryaks eat all sorts of seabirds, but as soon as fishing and hunting for seals begins, the hunting of birds stops. Koryaks love eggs very much. During egg laying, they go on their kayaks to the islands to collect eggs, collect them in hundreds and eat them boiled now or in the following days. They treat eggs that have just been produced and spoiled ones equally. Since I was present as the Koryaks ate boiled spoiled eggs, which were spoiled so badly that the smell of them could be felt from afar. Many eggs had even half-bred chicks, but this did not prevent the Koryaks from enjoying their food. ”

For example, Kamchatka people made "needles and combs for scratching nettles" from the bones of the wing of the albatross, and needles from the bones of seagulls. "The cormorant meat is strong and hard, but the kamchadals cook it so well that it is not disgusting for the circumstance: they fry them in the burnt pits without plucking and taking out the internal organs, and after roasting the meat is taken out of the skin." "The eggs of urils (guillemots) are not tasty and are very watery. <…> Itelmens boil these birds without removing their feathers and entrails, in hot pits, and in this form guillemots are best suited for food. When they are removed from such a pit, the meat can be removed from the skin, as if from a vessel, and the insides thrown away. Birds cooked in this way become quite soft and juicy. "

As for the Koryaks, they paid a lot of attention to collection of seagull eggs. "Women and children go out to the seaside tundra with baskets, bags and gather eggs of gulls in large quantities. They eat them boiled, and it is completely indifferent whether the egg is fresh or already incubated. "


Темноспинный альбатрос

Kamchatka people made "needles and combs for scratching nettles" Photo by Anastasia Panfilova

The role of birds in the art of the indigenous peoples of Kamchatka 

Birds also had a great influence on the development of various types of arts of the indigenous peoples of Kamchatka. For example, the widespread elements of Aleutian, Itelmen and Koryak choreographic productions contain movements and sounds that imitate, among other things, birds and their habits.  

For example, the Kamchatka dances seen by Merk in Petropavlovsk Harbor were remembered by him as “lustful movements, especially with their shoulders and hips, and rather loose playing with the skin of their foreheads. They imitate bears, whales, geese, as the latter start their love games or as Kamchadals try to kill them. " Apparently, the dance conveyed the traits of those ancient mysteries, the essence of which was to attract and "resurrect" animals and birds. 

A prominent place at the festival of "cleansing" was traditionally given to the pantomime. For example, according to Stepan Krasheninnikov's testimony, at the southern group of itelmen a special pantomime was played out with a stuffed whale made of sweet grass and yukola. At the end of the first day of the festival, around midnight, a woman entered the house with a stuffed whale tied to her back. The woman "crawled around the fire, followed by two kamchadals with sealed intestines, interwoven with sweet grass, and, shouting like a crow and striking the whale with the guts."

There were also song traditions that imitated the voices of birds. An example is a song called aangichi (long-tailed duck), which is composed on the basis of the sea duck (aangich) voice. The meaning of the song is as follows: "I have lost my wife and soul, I will go to the forest with sorrow, I will pluck the bark from the tree and eat it, after that I will rise in the morning, chase the duck aangichi from the ground to the sea, and I will look on all sides, searching for my sweet heart." But to the semantic component of the people added "some insignificant syllables", which reminded of the sound of sea ducks.

The “bird folklore” of the indigenous peoples of Kamchatka is also extremely diverse.  Raven Kutkh plays a central role in the mythology of Koryaks and Itelmens. It is worth noting that many stories related to Kutkh are similar to stories related to the Raven, common among the indigenous peoples of the northwest coast of North America. This is most likely due to the long history of cultural contacts between peoples. 


Raven Kutkh plays a central role in the mythology of Koryaks and Itelmens. Photo - Evgeny Mamaev.

History of ornithological research in Kamchatka

For a long time, Kamchatka remained one of the regions with poorly studied bird population.  An important stage in the study of Kamchatka birds was the Second Kamchatka Expedition of 1733–1743 under the leadership of Vitus Bering.

The famous scientist and traveler Stepan Krasheninnikov, still a student then, worked as a naturalist as part of the expedition. Thanks to his work, the first scientific information on birds of the region was collected, and the two-volume work "Description of the land of Kamchatka" became the first monographic description of Kamchatka, where three articles were devoted to birds.

Another participant in this expedition — a German doctor, traveler, scientist - naturalist Georg Steller. It was he who first described the fauna of the then unknown islands, which later became known as the Commander Islands. The naturalist was one of the few who survived the winter on the Commanders after the shipwreck.

The main ornithological discovery of Steller is considered to be the discovery of a new species of cormorant, endemic (that is, a species found only in this territory) for the Commander Islands and the largest of the known cormorant species in size. Unfortunately, these large birds became easy prey for subsequent expeditions and were completely exterminated. This type of cormorant was similar in size to a modern turkey and could hardly fly, which made it an easy prey for hunters.

In the future, the scientific study of Kamchatka birds was successfully continued thanks to such ornithologists as Friedrich Kittlitz, Karl Mertens, Ilya Voznesensky, Benedict Dybovsky, Leonard Stejneger. 

In the 20th century, a modern view of the study of birds as an important component of nature was formed. New data on the location, abundance and biology of birds were collected, which fundamentally changed the ideas about the ornithological fauna of the region and the state of Kamchatka populations, which had a high level of adaptability to the climatic conditions of Kamchatka. Ornithological studies of the region were described in detail in the books of ornithologists: Yuri Averin, Alexander Kishchinsky, Evgeny Lobkov.

Currently, 338 species of birds can be found in Kamchatka (this is a lot). 60 of them are listed in the regional Red Book.

День аборигена в селе Никольское

Celebration of Aboriginal Day in the village of Nikolskoye. Dancing that imitates the movements of birds is an integral part of the culture of the Kamchatka peoples. Photo - Dmitry Strakhov

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