Immiqutaillaq — Arctic Tern

Immiqutaillaq, the arctic tern, is remarkable for its graceful flight and for its habits, which are different from those of other northern sea birds. It is also known as allakatajaaq, "one who spreads apart", which refers to its characteristic behaviour of spreading its tail feathers apart and hovering with rapid wing beats as it searches for prey. Capable of flying and diving quickly and accurately, the tern feeds on small fish and crustaceans. It defends its young fiercely against larger predators, including gulls, jaegers, and even humans. Immiqutaillaq is unpopular with Inuit who try to collect eggs, as it dive-bombs them from the air, hits them on the head with its feet, and splatters them with excrement! The arctic tern is grouped by the Inuit with Sabine's gull, as their habits are similar, but different from other gulls.

The Inuit use the arctic tern to help navigate on the ocean when visibility is poor. When the land is hidden by fog, people travelling in boats can easily drift out to sea. Along with seaweed and other natural indicators, birds can help point the way to the shore: "[An] arctic tern will never mislead you. If the arctic tern has something in its mouth, the only direction that the bird is going to go is toward land; it will not go to open water". This principle makes use of the fact that terns hunt for fish in the ocean, but must fly back to the land in order to deliver food to their young on shore (IOHP 331). Another hunter discusses the same phenomenon:

Yes, it is much better that you stop [when out on the ocean in a fog]. But in places where there are birds around when there is no seaweed, you can observe the birds because they are always going somewhere. The faster birds (waterfowl) always go in the direction of the land. If you are in the pathway of birds which are flying low, then you can tell that these birds are flying in the direction of the land. This is especially true in the late spring when the birds have laid their eggs and have started to raise their young. These birds are likely returning home after feeding. These are the birds that you can use to determine the location of the land (IOHP 257).

One elder from Pangirtung noted that the arctic tern lays its eggs in aujakasak, the month of July, mcuh later than ducks, which lay in June (Interviewing Elders, Vol. 2, 1999). The bird was a welcome indicator that winter was truly over and summer had arrived.