The great auks were a flightless bird that went extinct on or about June 1844.

For an evolutionary disaster, the date sounds suspiciously precise, I know. But it’s probably more or less accurate.

A stuffed great auk is one exhibit in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons photo courtesy of Mike Pennington

Pinguinus impennis was known in earlier centuries as the wobble or garefowl, and to 16th century French fishermen as apponatz, a word borrowed from the Beothuk word apponath. The Inuit, who probably saw it often, called it isarukitsok. The Beothuk, indigenous inhabitants of Newfoundland, expired in 1829.

The great auk lived in subarctic waters of the North Atlantic around the time Europeans started pouring across the ocean to North America. As far back as Pleistocene times it may have been a food source for humans over much of Europe.

By the 100s A.D. it was leaving its rocky-shore breeding grounds in the British Isles for sites more northerly and westerly. At some point they may have bred along the coast of Maine and southern New England. Their nonbreeding range almost certainly reached to Cape Cod and possibly farther south, as great auk bones have been found in archaeological digs in Florida.

Human disruptions and climate changes during the Little Ice Age that began in the 14th century visited complicated impacts on the birds, and by about the 1700s their breeding range was limited to some northern British and Icelandic islands and Funk Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

Great auks were sometimes mistaken for penguins, in historical times. In illustrations, they look pretty cute, like their close relatives Atlantic puffins and razorbills that now live in our part of the Atlantic. In fact an alternative common name for razorbill is the lesser auk. One important reason the razorbills and puffins are still around is because they can fly. The great auks were great swimmers and divers, but like penguins, were flightless. This, combined with the fact that by all accounts they were extremely docile, made them easy to catch.

This is the part of the story that gets hard to take.

European fishermen in the 1500s and 1600s, possibly earlier, discovered that half-mile-long Funk Island was a huge breeding site for great auks. They started routinely killing birds for food and feathers, and eventually they just slaughtered them for the fun of it.

One is reminded of the upstate New York pigeon hunters in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Pioneers,” who think themselves quite decent people because they piously wait for bird season before they take out their cannons to annihilate thousands and thousands of pigeons at a time. (Meanwhile, Natty Bumppo gets thrown in jail for shooting a deer out of season.) The last passenger pigeon expired in 1914.

By the 1800s, great auk sightings were few and far between. As far as anyone can tell, the last breeding they did was at Funk Island, two bleak Icelandic islands, possibly a couple of spots in the Outer Hebrides and Orkneys, and maybe the Isle of Man.

Between June 2 and 5, 1844, a group went to Eldey, a volcanic skerry off Iceland, where they found two great auks amid a large gathering of other shorebirds. As summarized in the ornithological journal Ibis in 1861:

“The Garefowls showed not the slightest disposition to repel the invaders, but immediately ran along under the high cliff, their heads erect, their little wings somewhat extended. They uttered no cry of alarm, and moved, with their short steps, about as quickly as man could walk. Jon (Brandsson), with outstretched arms, drove one into a corner, where he soon had it fast. Sigurdr (Islefsson) and Ketil pursued the second, and the former seized it close to the edge of the rock, here risen to a precipice some fathoms high, the water being directly below it. Ketil (Ketilson) then returned to the sloping shelf whence the birds had started, and saw an egg lying on the lava slab, which he knew to be a Garefowl’s. He took it up, but finding it was broken, he put it down again. Whether there was not another egg is uncertain. All this took place in much less time than it takes to tell it.”

The market for rare and disappearing birds and their feathers being lucrative at the time, the men may have taken the two birds to a dealer, who may have passed them on to a museum to be stuffed. No one knows for sure.

The Eldey birds were the last reliably identified great auks seen alive. There were a handful of few of unverified sightings in 1848 and the 1850s, but science likes fixed lore, too. The Eldey birds were the species’ historical end.

We like to think we’ve come a long way in conservation. Which we have, sort of. At least now we recognize what we’re doing, or some of us do anyway. Atlantic puffins, razorbills, great cormorant (breeding populations) and Arctic tern are all seabirds on Maine’s threatened species list. Endangered are the black tern, least tern and roseate tern. A recent study found that the top threats to seabirds worldwide are invasive alien species; bycatch in fisheries; and climate change/severe weather; with overfishing, hunting/trapping and disturbance also major problems.

The Earth is undergoing right now its sixth mass extinction event since multicellular life took hard hold here about 600 million years ago. It is due in large part to the activities of humans over the last 500 years. About the time the slaughter of the great auks seems to have gotten seriously under way.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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