The smallest of the auk seabirds is aptly named the little auk, reaching just barely 7 inches long at maturity. This seabird more than makes up for its tiny size with skillful diving abilities to feed on a variety of fish and crustaceans in the chilly Arctic Ocean.
Little auks are characteristically black and white in color; however during breeding season, they may be almost entirely black except for white under parts. Just like penguins, they stand erect on land due to their legs being positioned at the rear of the body. Aside from islands around the Arctic and the Bering Sea, the little auk can also be found around Greenland, Iceland and northern Russia. The little auk is a migratory bird, traveling to the North Atlantic Ocean, sometimes as far south as the United Kingdom and parts of the U.S., at the onset of winter.
The little auk takes advantage of cold temperatures and rocky shores ideal for breeding and foraging. Just like other seabirds, little auks need land for mating and nesting, but are entirely dependent on the sea for food. Despite their compact size and short wing span, little auks can dive to depths of up to 115 feet where they use their natural buoyancy to shoot back upwards through the water in a zig-zag pattern and capture prey. By diving deep and looking from below, prey is often illuminated by the surface light and easier to catch in one mouthful. Little auks also have the advantage of an extensible pouch in the throat that makes it easier to carry prey to nests.
In the spring and summer, little auks nest in large colonies—the largest of all auk species— among rocks and cliffs surrounding the water. Breeding pairs lay eggs in between small rocks or burrowed on a hillside. Competition over prime nesting spots is common among little auks, and dominant birds will sometimes chase opponents in the air until their nest site is secured. Similar to some penguin species, a bed of pebbles provides a safe space for egg incubation.
The little auk has an extensive range, and as such, the IUCN Red List does not see the current population of little auks as threatened or vulnerable. Few threats are known to affect this seabird, but other seabird species have been known to be effected by changes in the environment and abandoned longlines or other fishing gear.