There are few extinction stories that have so captured the public’s imagination as that of the great auk. It was a species of flightless bird that lived on rocky islands in the North Atlantic. There, it enjoyed access to the ocean, enormous amounts of food, a few select breeding sites. Their habitat stretched across the Atlantic from the north of Spain to Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Great Britain. The auk is the only British bird to have been made extinct in modern times.
It has become clear the great auk was an important cultural symbol and a food source for Native American cultures. Some burial sites included great auk bones and beaks.
Credit: Mike Pennington
What was the Great Auk?
The great auk was an ocean bird that ranged from 30 to 33 inches (75 to 85 centimeters) tall and weighed around 11 pounds or 5 kilograms. It was the largest alcid to survive in the modern area. Its body was white and black, somewhat reminiscent of a puffin or penguin, with a hooked black beak. Interestingly enough, during the summer, the auk’s plumage changed. Around its eyes, it would develop a white patch, something that faded when winter returned. The bird was flightless but made up for that loss through its powerful swimming skills.
How Did the Great Auk Live?
The great auk was one of many birds that mated for life. Their eggs were white with brown marbling, and both parents helped to incubate it over the six weeks before the baby hatched. They hunted throughout the North Atlantic waters, performing to eat fish such as the menhaden and capelin. Prior to the 1500s, great auks lived in abundance in colonies consisting of hundreds of thousands of birds along the shores during the breeding season. In fact, well into the 1700s, a sailor described Funk Island ( one of the auks’ favorite breeding spots) with the following words:
[…] a man could not go ashore upon those islands without boots, for otherwise, they would spoil his legs, that they were entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.
What Happened to the Great Auk?
The tragedy of the great auk began during the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling after the Medieval Warm Period, from the 16th to 19th centuries. During this period, the auk was exposed to greater predation from polar bears and other predators. But, this was not the main reason the auk’s numbers plummeted so dramatically. During the mid-16th century, auk down was in constant demand. The auk populations along the coast of Europe were almost completely decimated as humans pursued them, using their down to make pillows.
Although the auk first became semi-protected in 1553, it was not until 1794 that Great Britain banned killing auks for their feathers. A similar law was enacted in St. Johns. In North America, hunters turned to kill auk after the population of eiders was nearly extinguished.
Here are the words of French explorer Jacques Cartier who described auks, and what it was like to kill them, in 1534:
[…] some of these birds were as large as geese, being black and white with a beak like a crow’s. […] And these birds are so fat it is marvellous… In less than halfe an houre we filled two boats full of them, as if they had been stones, so that besides them that we did eat fresh, every ship did powder and salt five or six barrels full of them […]
Due to the new-found rarity of the bird, specimens were in high demand. This included their eggs, which were primarily white with patterns of speckled brown dots. Although fewer birds were killed for their feathers, the capture and collection of eggs were incredibly detrimental. Those who made a career out of pillaging auk nests were known as eggers. The eggers soon learned the auk’s habits, realizing that the birds laid their eggs on multiple days. A telling note by Captain Richard Whitbourne in 1662 described how sailors and hunters killed auks:
[…] by hundreds at a time as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admirable instrument for the sustenation of Man.
Auks, reports claim, had no fear of humans. They could walk right up to the birds and strike them, or strangle them as the case was with the last great auks.
Credit: durocher1766 CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Last Great Auk
The last great auk in Great Britain was killed on the islet of Stac an Admin in Scotland in 1844. It was caught and kept alive for three days until a dangerous storm began to threaten the three men from St Kilda who captured it. In an attempt to save their own lives and stop the storm, the men beat the auk to death with a stick, determined that it was a witch intent on drowning them.
The last colony of great auks lived on a volcanic rock off Iceland known as Geirfuglasker or the “Great Auk Rock.” Unfortunately, volcanic activity submerged the island, forcing the birds to migrate to the much more human-accessible island of Eldey. In 1835, when the colony was discovered, around fifty birds were living there. Hunters working for museums collected the birds from the colony. The final pair was killed while incubating an egg on the 3rd of July 1844. The egg was crushed under a fisherman’s boot.
Hunting Seabirds Today
Unfortunately, the plight of seabirds was not alleviated by humanity’s collective guilt over the extinction of the auk. Seabirds are still hunted purposefully and accidentally. They are one of the world’s most threatened groups. According to Birdlife, half of all seabirds have a declining population, and one in three is threatened with extinction. Seabirds are impacted by invasive species, bycatch, and continual environmental changes as the planet warms and ice melts due to the climate crisis. On top of these factors, human encroachment on important seabird colonies is yet another factor endangering these animals that are critical to ocean ecosystems.