Aqiggiq — (Willow and Rock) Ptarmigan

Aqiggiq atajulik, the rock ptarmigan.

Two species of ptarmigan live in the Canadian Arctic: aqiggiq aqiggivik, "the true ptarmigan" (the willow ptarmigan), and aqiggiq atajulik, "the ptarmigan that has an attachment" (the rock ptarmigan). The "attachment" refers to the small black line that joins the eye of the rock ptarmigan to its beak. In general, the two species are simply referred to as aqiggiq (Randa 1994).

Because they are one of the few birds that remain in the north year round, ptarmigan hold an important position in both the culture and diet of the Inuit. As relatively large, easy-to-catch birds, they are a valued food item, serving to vary a diet of caribou and marine mammals. Many hunters stretched out their food reserves by hunting ptarmigan when large game were scarce. In fact, they were valued so much that people were encouraged to kill owls and falcons, in order to prevent them from hunting the ptarmigan (IOHP 004).

Ptarmigans played an interesting part in the seasonal celebrations of the Inuit. Over the course of the year, new babies were assigned to groups according to when they were born. Those who were born in a skin tent – the summer children – were known as aggiaqjuit, long-tailed ducks. Those who were born in winter in an iglu, or snow house, were aqiggiit, ptarmigans. The ptarmigan was chosen to be the "mascot" of winter because it is the bird most commonly found across the Arctic in winter. It is well adapted to survive in deep snow and bitter cold, and can locate plants to feed on even in the harshest conditions – all of which are important characteristics for the Inuit (IOHP 153).

Throughout the year, whenever games were played which required two teams, the people often separated on the basis of ptarmigans versus longtailed ducks. This was particularly important during the time in January when the sun was beginning to return. At this time, celebrations were held in large communal igloos called qaggi. "Ptarmigans" and "long-tailed ducks" would engage in song battles, with representatives of each trying to outdo the other by performing humorous drum songs mocking the other team. In the summer, the two teams would engage in ball games, with the "long-tailed ducks" trying to send the ball towards the water, while the "ptarmigans" attempted to bring it back towards the land, their preferred habitat (IOHP 153).

Other Inuit customs also revolved around ptarmigans. One important taboo forbade people from burning ptarmigan feathers, because of a legend that associated ptarmigans with two girls who later turned into thunder and lightning. This meant that, for fear of causing a severe thunderstorm, Inuit who wished to make a fire from tundra plants had first to pick out any tiny bits of ptarmigan down (IOHP 197, 066).

There was something that was not allowed more than anything else, and that is to light up ptarmigan feathers with fire. It was believed that even in the winter time it might cause thunder in so doing (IOHP 158). I have heard that one should not light up feathers from ptarmigan, as legend has it that during the famine, both thunders depended on ptarmigans, so ptarmigans were the main cause of thunder. If a feather from a ptarmigan was put on fire then it was certain that it would really thunder, even in winter. I have heard about it (IOHP 066).

One researcher, inquiring about the possible results of climate change on northern animals, asked about the effect changes in weather would have on species. The Inuit suggested that greater snowfall in winter would not be a problem for most animals, but that winter rain, followed by freezing, would likely cause starvation among ptarmigan and caribou. This is because both these species rely on plants for food and must dig through snow to find nourishment. Even in regions of heavy snowfall, areas with little or no snow can be found on top of windswept ridges; ice, however, would seal off the surface and prevent the birds from reaching any food (IOHP 402). In ordinary winters, ptarmigan make their search for food easier by following after caribou, and feeding in the areas where their feet have already scraped away the snow.

Ptarmigan droppings also had uses. In winter, Inuit collected frozen droppings from snowy ridges, which they thawed inside the igloo. Once the droppings had unfrozen, the water was drained from them and they were mixed with ptarmigan meat or seal meat, oil and blood to form a delicacy. The "strong-tasting" droppings served as an excellent seasoning for the usual diet of seal parts (IOHP 428, 216). The droppings also give their name, uruniit, to a type of fossil that is shaped like them (IOHP 147).

An old tale tells how the ptarmigan first came into being through the actions of a young girl and her grandmother (Randa 1994).