Entering shallow waters, waves grow taller only to break against the rough, rocky edges of a tiny island off the coast of Iceland. The frigid sea laps against basalt cliffs gleaming black in the sun, while among the whirlpools, waves and spume float large black and white birds. They are waiting for the right moment to get onto the cliff and start the climb towards their nests. Despite having wings and flight feathers, they cannot just take to the air. Their wings are ridiculously small, as if they stopped growing when the birds were still chicks. And although they are great for diving, they will eventually seal their owners’ tragic fate.
The great auk is an impressive bird, superbly adapted to life in the waters of the North Atlantic. It is uncertain how big its population used to be, but according to some claims there were over 2 million of them around the world. They nested along the eastern coast of Canada, in Scotland and Iceland, and – due to their swimming skills – were found throughout the North Atlantic. Weighing approximately 5 kg (almost as much as the mute swan), the great auk was a great diver. Its sharp, heavy beak was perfect for catching fish, while its webbed feet and tiny wings made it easier to manoeuvre under water. On land, it walked clumsily in an upright position, reaching around 80–90 cm in height. Like other birds in the auk family, the great auk had a black back and a white belly. Additionally, it had a white oval patch over each eye, which probably earned it its first name – pen gwyn, which is Welsh for white head. Based on that first name was the bird’s Latin name – Pinguinus impennis, which might be translated as flightless, white-headed bird. Contrary to what the name suggests, the species did not have much in common with penguins. It is, in fact, the latter birds that owe their name to the great auk. And to Francis Drake.
Sir Francis Drake was an English sea captain and privateer, who spent the years 1577–1580 sailing around the world on board of the galleon Golden Hind. The ship’s log mentions that, when passing through the Strait of Magellan, the Welsh crew spotted black and white birds in the surrounding waters. Mistaking the birds for the familiar great auk, the men called them pengwyn. Even though what they saw was, in fact, a completely different species (now known as the Magellanic penguin), the new name caught on to such an extent that (in terms of phonetics, if not spelling) today there are penguins in most languages of the world.
Man long used the great auk for his own good. It is known for a fact that the birds were part of the Neanderthal’s diet as long as 100,000 years ago! They were hunted for meat and eggs as well as feathers and skins, which brilliantly minimized heat loss. A thick layer of fat found under the skin served as extra protection from the cold and was used as fuel, cooking fat, and a source of light and warmth. Being the only flightless bird of the northern hemisphere, the great auk was easy prey. It was hunted within its breeding colonies and out in the sea, with the use of nets or even fishing rods. It was the perfect source of fresh meat for ship crews – if a hunt was particularly successful, excess birds were locked up in cargo holds and kept alive until needed.
Since the discovery of rich fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland at the end of the 15th century, the population of the great auk dwindled rapidly. The region abounded not only in fish, but also in seabird colonies, close to which fish processing facilities were typically built. Every year, between three and four hundred fishing vessels headed over to Newfoundland from Europe and the main source of food for all the men were none other than great auks. An estimated 200,000 of them were killed each year by the fishing crews.
The size of the great auk population was declining steeply in other breeding grounds too and, despite conservation attempts made in Canada and Great Britain at the end of the 18th century, it was becoming clear that the species was doomed. The conservation attempts involved imposing hunting limitations as well as a total ban on hunting the birds for feathers and collecting eggs from the colonies. It was still, however, allowed to use their meat as fishing bait. As a result, at the beginning of the 19th century, news of no more great auks started to come in from particular islands. The first came in 1800 from Funk Island, located 60 km to the north-east of Labrador. Forty years later, it was confirmed that the last couple from the Scottish population of the great auk had been killed on one of the islands within St. Kilda archipelago.
The last safe haven of the great auk was a small, rocky and almost inaccessible islet of Geirfuglasker (or the Great Auk Rock) off the coast of Island. No man would risk his life to brave vertical cliffs rising from choppy seas, so the birds could enjoy some peace. In 1830, however, the peace came to a sudden end. An underwater volcanic eruption made Geirfuglasker fall apart and sink into the ocean. The auks that survived the event fled to the nearby island of Eldey, which no longer offered much protection from man.
When the great auk was already at the brink of extinction, its fate was sealed by collectors, who offered vast sums of money for the birds’ skins and eggs (At an auction on October 8, 2020 in Gloucestershire, a replica made in the 1920s was auctioned for £ 25,000). It was indeed a collector that got hold of the last living individual.
On 3rd June 1844, a single boat reached the sheer cliffs of the island of Eldey. A few men climbed to the island’s flat, barren top in search of birds, which a wealthy merchant wished to add to his collection. Slowly, they approached the only pair of great auks in sight.
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After that inconspicuous event, only a few more sightings of single individuals were reported. The last of them was said to have occurred in the 1920s, off the coast of the Lofoten Islands, but its authenticity was never confirmed.
The story of the great auk is the best documented case of modern extinction caused by human activity. All that is left of the species is 78 skins, egg and feather collections, and skeletons, many of which are museum exhibits, on display, for example, in Leipzig, Glasgow and Copenhagen. The great auk continues to generate much enthusiasm among collectors and fetches very high prices.
A poignant depiction of the great auk can be found in “The Water-Babies” by Charles Kingsley, published in 1863, which was a mainstay of British children’s literature for decades and still attracts considerable attention. The story focuses on a water-baby named Tom, his adventures and the characters he meets on his way. One of them is an old, bespectacled great auk, wearing a black, velvet dress and a white apron, who shares with Tom the sad story of her kind and the reasons why there is none left of it but herself.
At the foot of a cliff, the waves crash violently against the rock, turning the water into froth. Up above, on the soft tundra of Papa Westray, one of the northernmost islands of Orkney, the sound of waves mixes with the shrill scream of the Arctic tern. A path running along the edge of the cliff brings us to a small stone monument with a brass plaque and a clay figure. The plaque is a tribute to the last great auk of Papa Westray, killed by man in 1813. The clay figure is a life-size great auk gazing towards the ocean.
Author: Liliana Schönberger (Keslinka), PhD
Figure 1. Mike Pennington / Great Auk (Pinguinis impennis) specimen, Kelvingrove, Glasgow / CC BY-SA 2.0
Figure 2. From the book: Lost and vanishing birds; being a record of some remarkable extinct species and a plea for some threatened forms by C. Dixon; London, J. Macqueen, 1898.
Figure 3. Memorial to the last great auk killed in Britain in 1813, Fowl Craig, Papa Westray.