The black and white Great Auk was a beautiful bird of bizarre proportions. Its ribbed beak was huge and unwieldy, its legs were too short and its stubby wings were far too small to carry its big body into the air. In these regards, the Great Auk’s clumsy appearance rivals that of the Dodo. And that’s not the only thing these two birds have in common. For the Great Auk too, was driven extinct by human cruelty and carelessness.
The Icelandic fishermen Sigurðr Islefsson, Jón Brandsson and Ketil Ketilsson saw the last living Great Auks, in June 1844. They promptly killed both birds and destroyed their egg. The bland details of their story, chronicled by the British zoologists Alfred Newton and John Wolley, make it seem as if these birds were killed only yesterday. And indeed, the Great Auk is almost tangible. Whereas all that is left of the dodo are a few bones, 78 stuffed Great Auks and about the same number of their spotted eggs still exist.
Almost tangible, but not quite. There’s only so much you can learn from dead birds and unhatched eggs. No one remembers what their call sounded like or what colour their eyes were. Nor will anyone ever know. The only thing that is left, is to understand the tale of their demise.
If Great Auks looked out of place on land, this is because they belonged in the water, where they caught fish and crustaceans. They were great swimmers and divers, just like their living relatives the Razorbill and the Atlantic Puffin. The shape of their wings and body life are adaptations for a life on and under water, allowing the Great Auks to swim with such ease. They couldn’t fly, but they were masters of what Bengson called “subaqueous flight”.
The flippers of Penguins have a similar shape as the wings of the Great Auk. Penguins are also just as flightless as the Great Auk. This is an example of convergent evolution, since Auks and Penguins independently evolved their streamlined wings.
Great Auks could be found throughout the subarctic Atlantic ocean. Their range extended from the rocky shores of Newfoundland to the British Isles and the coasts of Norway. They were out on sea for most of the year, and only sought out land during their breeding season, which started in late spring. The Great Auk’s choice of breeding sites was limited because of its inability to fly. The only suitable islands were those with ledges or reefs, so that the birds could waddle ashore.
Great Auks lived in large breeding colonies. Some of the larger colonies near Newfoundland must have numbered tens of thousands of birds. Each breeding pair laid a single egg, which had unique spots and markings. Perhaps these markings helped the parents to recognize their own egg on the crowded breeding grounds.
Not much is known about the way the Great Auk raised their chicks. Since other species of Auk share the care for the chicks between both parents, it is likely that Great Auks did the same. Some scientists think that the chicks took to the sea as quick as a few days after hatching, because it would have been difficult for the parents to feed their chicks for much longer, without being able to fly. Finding food out at see and coming back ashore would have costed a lot of energy. On sea, the chicks could be nourished easier. But computer models suggest that Great Auks would have had enough energy and time to feed their chicks for a while, before taking them to sea. This parenting style would have matched that of their closest living relative, the Razorbill, which feeds its chicks until they have a quarter of their adult body weight, before they take them to sea.
The unique adaptations that served the Great Auk so well at sea, turned against them in their interactions with man. Their breeding sites were easily accessible from sea, but also easily accessible for humans. Their stubble wings gave them great speed under water, but also meant they could not escape from man’s hungry reach. Wherever they could, humans hunted the Great Auks for their meat, feathers and oil.
There is evidence that Great Auks were already hunted in prehistoric times. But the earliest accounts of their wholesale slaughter date to the 16th Century. From this time onwards, massacres have been described where birds were killed by European sailors, hundreds at a time. The most horrible account of such a massacre comes from the journal of one Aaron Thomas. He describes what happened on Funk Island, near Newfoundland, which hosted one of the largest colonies of Great Auks. Ironically, Funk Island is now a protected wildlife sanctuary.
If you come for their Feathers, you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of their Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin* adrift, with their skin naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.
While you abide on this Island you are in the constant practize of horrid crueltys for you not only Skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also, to cook their bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.
~Journal of Aaron Thomas (1794), aboard the H.M.S. Boston
quote from The Great Auk (1999) by Errol Fuller
* Great Auks were called penguins long before European sailors gave the birds on the southern hemisphere the same name. Penguins are named after Auks, not the other way around.
It is obvious that Great Auks could not survive such sustained butchering for long. Their numbers plummeted until all the large colonies had disappeared by the turn of the 19th century. By then, the last retreat of the Great Auk was Geirfuglasker, a small islet near Iceland where they would breed in the early summer months. Fishermen occasionally came to Geirfuglasker to hunt and plunder, but the island was remote and its currents treacherous enough to provide relative safety.
That is, until disaster struck in 1830. During a period of volcanic activity, Geirfuglasker sank into sea entirely. The birds that survived this upheaval sought a new home, and found it on the island of Eldey. This island was just as desolate and barren as Geirfuglasker, but it had one big disadvantage: it was much closer to the Icelandic coast, and thus more accessible.
Fishermen hunted down most of Great Auks that lived on Eldey. They were spurred on by naturalists in Europe who began to realize that the Great Auk was becoming rare. They commissioned fishermen to obtain dead birds and eggs for their collections. For what better way to impress your Victorian colleagues than with a stuffed Great Auk on your desk, or one of its spotted eggs in your cabinet? This sudden popularity as a gentleman’s collector’s item would be the final push that the Great Auk could no longer take.
It was the merchant Carl Siemsen who contracted the party of fourteen men that would set out to kill the last Great Auks in 1844. When they had rowed close to the island, they quickly saw the two large birds. Three men landed on the island. Not soon after, one bird was cornered against the cliff wall. One bird tried to escape via the water. Both were caught and strangled. “I took him by the neck as he flapped his wings. He made no cry when I strangled him”, is what the fisherman Sigurðr would remember later. It was only after the birds had been killed, that the men discovered their egg had been broken. Eldey too, is now a protected bird reserve.
Did the death of this breeding couple mean the last Great Auks had died? Was their egg the last hope of an entire species? Could the Great Auk be saved? Maybe. Probably not. Perhaps a few Great Auks still existed out on sea or on some isolated island. But as a species, the Great Auks was doomed long before 1844. The Great Auk was a colonial and social bird, that relied on large numbers of its kind to be successful.
The conservation biologist Michael Soulé once compared the death of the last individual of a species to the final punctuation mark in a book, or the final curtain of a play: it was not this death itself that mattered, but the story that preceded it. Only by learning the story, can we learn how and why species become extinct. Still, I think the tale of the last Great Auk deserves to be told. It doesn’t really matter where she lived, or when she died. She lived. She died. If she did not have a peaceful death in life, at least she will have one in fiction.
She had seen much in her long life. Her colony had fallen apart when she was only four years old. Her mate was clubbed to death not long after the confusion that ensued. Now, she was old and alone. She no longer caught as much fish as she once did. When the summer months finally came, her instincts drove her out of the sea, to her old home. As she waddled ashore, she saw no others of her kind. She never did. Far from the other birds, she found a vacant spot on the rocks, in the shadows of the cliffs. She lowered her head and closed her eyes. The last Great Auk slowly sank into her final sleep. The sounds of the birds and beating waves morphed into the the calls of a thousand Great Auks. So this is where they went. Finally, she was home.
Top: The Last Stand, by Error Fuller. Fuller is an artist and writer who wrote a beautiful book on the Great Auk. Image used with his permission.
Middle: Alca Impennis, drawing by the ornithologist and artist John Gould. Image in the common domain.
Bottom: Great Auk egg, drawing by naturalist Adolphe Millot. Image in the common domain.
The final paragraph was inspired by the description of the death of the last Dodo by David Quammen, in Song of the Dodo (p. 275).
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