The Auklet’s Whiskers—Not Just for Show

Distinctive plumes serve a dual purpose.

This story is brought to you by BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

At dusk, in the far western reaches of Alaska’s Aleutian chain of islands, thousands of tiny Whiskered Auklets fly in to nest in cavities deep in rock crevices. 

Whiskered Auklets are miniature relatives of puffins and murres. Charcoal gray, they're about eight inches long and owe their name to the long, slender white plumes that sprout from their heads each summer. They end up with rows down the side of the face and a third set that stands like antennae above their eyes. These fancy white plumes very likely play a visual role in courtship and mate selection. But they're not just for show. 

Scientists have recently learned that the auklets’ “whiskers” have an important sensory function, too. When the birds enter their cliff-side nest cavities, they find themselves in utter darkness. The “whiskers” enable the auklets to feel their way along in the dark. Much like the whiskers of a cat, they're acutely sensitive. 

By summer’s end, when nesting is done, Whiskered Auklets return to life on the open sea, like many seabirds. And with no dark crevices to navigate and no mates to impress, they molt their multi-purpose whiskers. Until next spring.

Today's show is brought to you by the Bobolink Foundation. 

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Whiskered Auklet recorded by S S Seneviratne. Ambient sounds recorded by Gordom Hempton of Quiet BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black

Written by Bob Sundstrom

© 2015 Tune In to     June 2015     Narrator: Michael Stein