Qaulluqtaaq — Snow Bunting

Qaulluqtaaq, the snow bunting, is a member of the qupanuat, the various small songbirds found on the tundra. Its other names, amautlik and ukiuqtaarjuk, mean "the one with a pouch", referring to the black pattern on its back, and "the little one belonging to the winter". Although it does not spend the winter in the High Arctic, the bunting is one of the first birds to arrive back in the North in early spring, when temperatures are still well below freezing. It remains in the Arctic until the ground begins to freeze again in September (Randa 1994).

Snow buntings eat a variety of items, including insects – particularly mosquitoes – berries and seeds. The Inuit often compare and contrast qaulluqtaaq, "the whiter one", with qirniqtaaq, "the blacker one", the Lapland longspur. Both birds sing strongly, but the song of qaulluqtaaq seems to resemble human speech. Each Inuit child interprets the bunting's song differently, hearing messages ranging from "Go and pray! Go and pray!" to "Have some tea with good things to eat!"

Snow buntings are common, familiar birds in almost all parts of the Arctic. Because of their wide distribution, they are well recognized by the Inuit as birds "that can be seen all over the place, in all regions". Although their tiny size makes them useless as a major prey species, the Inuit regard them fondly. In the absence of calendars, buntings were important indicators of the changing seasons, and were especially associated with caribou, whose life cycles they paralleled. When the colour of the feathers of fledgling snow buntings changes to a reddish-brown, the hair of caribou calves is also changing to a reddish colour. At this time the caribou skin is perfect for use in certain types of clothing, such as qulittaq. Later in the summer, after the young have learned to fly, buntings begin to flock together in preparation for migrating southward. At the same time, caribou are gathering together for the fall. By observing the buntings, hunters could tell what the caribou would be doing at that time, even if there were none in the vicinity. This was an important factor in planning hunting trips (IOHP 402, 370, 192).

Along with many other species of birds, snow buntings are being seen more and more often in northern communities where they were once less common (IOHP 456). This may be a result of the warming climate in the North.