Common Eider in Iceland

What are the most common birds in Iceland, and how are birds connected to Icelandic culture? 

Birdlife in Iceland

A lot of travelers are interested in Icelandic birdlife. Mainly people are excited about seeing (or tasting!) puffin but there are many other species of birds to be found in Iceland.

About 85 species of birds nest or have attempted to nest in Iceland, although there are about 330 species of birds that have been recorded in Iceland. 12 species are common passage migrants or winter visitors.

The number of nesting species in Iceland is relatively low in comparison with other European countries. In contrast, the total number of certain species, such as the puffin, is so large that they fully compensate for the comparatively small variety.

The best time for bird watching in Iceland is the latter half of May and the first three weeks in June.

Some birds can be seen in Reykjavík, especially around Reykjavík’s central pond. These include Arctic Tern, Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Common Eider, Common Ringed Plover and many, many more.

Here is an audio clip of some of the birds in Reykjavík, recorded in Seltjarnarnes at 11pm in early May, clearly before the Arctic Tern has arrived. Notice the Common Snipe.

Let us take a closer look at some of the most common birds in Iceland.

Puffins in Iceland (Lundi)

Puffin in Iceland

Like mentioned before; Puffin is the most popular bird in Iceland. You can find millions of puffins in Iceland dotted around the coastline, although the best place to look for them is in the Westman Islands.

Puffin has become a sort of a ‘signature’ bird for the Westman Islands where the biggest Puffin colony of Iceland is. It is estimated that there are well over 10 million Puffins nesting in Iceland every summer, most of them in the Westman Islands.

You can see puffins in Iceland from the beginning of April until September.

If you love birds in other ways then just watching them, then be sure to taste smoked Puffin, a national delicacy. See more cute puffin pictures.

Golden Plover in Iceland (Lóa)

Picture by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen from Wikimedia Commons

There is a saying in Iceland that the Golden Plover brings with it the springtime. Every year a picture appears in the national newspapers of the first sighting of the Golden Plover normally between the 20th and 30th of March, announcing that summer has arrived.

It stays until late September or even beginning of November.

Common Raven in Iceland (Hrafn/Krummi)

Perhaps the bird that comes closest to being the ‘Icelandic National Bird’ is the Raven. There are countless songs, poems and stories in Iceland about the Raven. Folksongs such as ‘Krummavísur (Krummi svaf í klettagjá)’ and ‘Krummi krunkar úti’ are known by every Icelander.

There are many superstitions and urban myths linked to the Raven; the ones who understand the Raven's speak are more intelligent than others, a Raven jumping up and down on someone’s roof and making all sorts of noises means someone is drowning and a Raven flying overhead either means death looming over or good prosperity (depending on which direction the Raven flies).

Common Snipe in Iceland (Hrossagaukur)

Picture by Alpsdake from Wikimedia Commons

The most noticeable thing about the Common Snipe in Iceland is not its looks – but its sounds. During courtship, the male performs a “winnowing” display by flying high in circles and then taking shallow dives. This produces a drumming sound through the vibrating of the bird’s tail feathers.

This drumming sound is quite unique and has been compared to the bleating of a sheep or a goat; hence in many languages the Snipe is known by names signifying ‘Flying Goat’. In Icelandic this sound is described as ‘neighing’ and the Snipe is called ‘Hrossagaukur’, or, ‘Horse Cuckoo’.

Arctic Tern in Iceland (Kría)

Arctic Tern in Iceland

Icelanders feel a great affinity towards the Arctic Tern, with pictures of it on postcards and stamps and cafés named after it. This may be a bit surprising when one can find themselves in a scene not unlike Hitchcock’s scene from The Birds when encountering the Arctic Tern in protective mood.

The Arctic Tern collective is a highly defensive bunch, with appointed lookouts that fly high and sound a piercing alarm call for incoming predators. The threat is then met with a team of Arctic Terns lining up and taking turns in dive-bombing into the enemy until he or she runs away screaming.

In Icelandic, the name ‘Kría’ matches the banshee cries of the bird.

Rock Ptarmigan in Iceland (Rjúpa)

Picture by Jan Frode Haugseth from Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the Ptarmigan needs to be mentioned (a Partridge species). This bird prefers walking to flying and therefore needs to seasonally camouflage in order to protect itself from predators. In the summertime its feathers are brown but they turn white in the wintertime.

The Ptarmigan is hunted in Iceland and is a very popular festive food, often served as the main dish on Christmas Eve. Hunting was banned in 2003-2004 but has been allowed since 2005 for only a few days each year and only for personal consumption.

Read now about wildlife and animals in Iceland.