Qaqsauq, kaglulik, tuulligjuaq — Loon

The Inuit identify three species of loon. Each has a specific name, but although they are recognized to have many similar characteristics, there is no general term for the group.

Qaqsauq, the red-throated loon, is the smallest of the loons. It arrives in the North in June, when the lakes are ice-free, and builds its nest on marshy ground on islands in small lakes. The Inuit explain the slow development of qaqsauq chicks by the fact that they nest next to cold water, which slows the process. Sometimes by the time chicks hatch, it is almost autumn and ice is beginning to form at the edge of the lakes. Qaqsauq feeds on small fish and plankton. Kaglulik, the arctic loon, is larger than the red-throated loon. Like the qaqsauq, it nests near cold lakes and its young develop very slowly. However, it inhabits hilly terrain as well as low areas (Randa 1994).

The common loon, tuulligjuaq, is the biggest of the loons. It arrives in the north once the lakes are ice-free, after which it spends all its time on the water, except when it is at its nest. When underwater, the Inuit say, tuulligjuaq acts more like a fish than a bird. Its haunting call is described by some as more beautiful than the cries of the other loons. An old story recounts how a loon heard a human being weeping and tried to imitate the sound. It adopted this as its cry and now, whenever bad weather is coming, the weeping call is heard all over the region. The name tuuligjuaq is also applied to the yellow-billed loon (Randa 1994).

With their delicate plumage, haunting calls and ocurrence in wild places, loons have worked their way into many different cultures. To the Inuit, they are valuable as weather forecasters, and figure in more than one important legend, in addition to occasionally being taken for food.

While many other birds signaled the advent of good weather in the spring, the loon's message warned of wet weather that would halt activities such as drying out skins around the camp. There would be a prolonged period of good warm weather so the woman would take advantage of that to dry skins, at this time the loons had started to come. When a loon cries out "QAQQAQAA", it is said that wet weather is on its way, so the cry of the loon was used to determine the forecast. This was more so at Tununirusiq because there are not as many birds in that area. I believe they used the loon much more to determine the forecasting of wet weather. When determining the foul weather without the loon they would say that 'the west side is getting bad'. That meant that the women must make certain that all the skins that they had laid out to dry were stored in a dry place, because they knew that bad weather was coming from the west and it was going to be a long spell. Loons could also be heard, loons do not cry out "QAQQAQAA" too often. These were the things that were observed to forecast the weather (IOHP 246).

Although loons are present across most of the Arctic, they were described by the Inuit as "not too delicious, as they have a taste of cod", and they were not considered everyday food. Nevertheless, when a loon was occasionally caught, it was cooked up and eaten (IOHP 428).

One ancient story tells of how a group of people was starving to death for want of game in a small camp in the north. One day a young boy caught a loon, which he brought back to the group, even though its small body was nowhere near big enough to feed everyone. In an effort to be fair, they cut up the loon at each joint, giving one tiny piece to each family. Miraculously, this little bit of nourishment was enough to tide them over the famine until more game could be caught. Generations later, when other people visited the site of the story, they found a small cache of rocks, under which was the skeleton of a loon- with the backbone severed at each joint.

Another, widely known story tells of how the loon restored sight to a blind boy, and in the process acquired its beautiful black and white necklace. A third legend maintains that the cry of the loon is the sound of an old woman weeping for the loss of her son at sea. The boy was swept away from the shore in his kayak and, unable to return, eventually turned into a red phalarope, leaving his mother desolate on the shore (Randa 1994).