Recently I’ve been doing my best to help spread word about the Passenger Pigeon Project honoring the 100th Anniversary of the death of the last known member of this once ubiquitous species. It made me realize that I don’t have a lot of information about the Great Auk. The Great Auk is well known to Laura fans because of its reference in The Long Winter and it used to be generally well known enough that “Gone as a Great Auk” was once a popular expression to use, along the line of “Dead as a Dodo” with a great number of hits in The New York Times. Today fewer people have heard about this bird and its sad fate.
Laura and the Great Auk
The Great Auk makes only a vary brief appearance in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I had previously posted about it when South Dakota birders (being the people most aware of what kind of birds you see in South Dakota) came out with an article narrowing down the identity of the “Little Great Auk” that the Ingalls family rescues in The Long Winter.
The Great Auk itself was extinct before Laura was even born, but the family was aware of its existence through Pa’s Big Green Animal Book as it was called in the “Little House” text. Here is image from the book and what they would have read.
“The giant-auk is three feet high, and has a black bill four inches and a quarter long, both mandibles being crossed obliquely with several ridges and furrows. Its wings are mere stumps, like those of the Antarctic penguins. Thirty pounds have been paid for its egg, which is larger than that of any European bird; and there is no knowing the price the Zoological Society would pay for a live bird, if this truly “rara avis” could still be found.” p.86
Hartwig, Dr. G. The Polar and Tropical Worlds: A Popular and Scientific Description. Springfield, MA : C.A. Nichols, 1876. Print.
Find copies to buy (it was widely reproduced) or read an e-book version from Google Books:
The Great Auk and John James Audubon
Although he could not find an alive one at the time (and none had been seen in North America in decades) John James Audubon painted it to include in his Birds of North America based on a stuffed specimen in London. This image is widely available and is on my latest “Laura” shirt thanks to Cafe Press.
Here’s a link that includes the image and the Audubon’s Society’s summary of the Great Auk’s fate:
Once There Were Billions
The Story of the Great Auk
I determined to find out more and while there are no less than two books just about Great Auk extinction I haven’t had a chance to read either yet, but I did make time for the fascinating chapter in:
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Holt and Company, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8050-9299-8
The book tells the history of the concept and discovery of extinction and how it is continuing now. It is very interesting read, but I’m just going to share about the Great Auk. The basic story is this.
Great Auks were the original penguins (European explorers borrowed a familiar name and changed the meaning of a term once reserved for the Greak Auk because of a passing physical resemblance, as they did to many newly discovered birds and animals). Once the Great Auks ranged all over the eastern seaboard of the United States and the western coast of Europe with evidence showing that it reached as far as Florida and Italy in its range. They were well known in the Roman Empire and were pictured in some of their mosaics (geeking out some people not aware of the Great Auk’s existence into thinking the Romans made it to the poles). Penguins are their own family, but Auks are members of a family that includes Puffins and other birds that have survived. From reports Great Auks were fantastic swimmers and spent most of their lives at sea. They did return to shore for their mating period on inhospitable islands near Iceland in May and June. Unfortunately for the Great Auks, Europeans discovered the Great Cod Banks and starting in the 1500s they made regular voyages that often took them near their mating islands. So just about the time these ships were growing desperate for fresh meat, who should present themselves, but a gathering of Great Auks as large and tasty as geese and easily caught. It became an annual occurrence for each ship involved in cod fishing to come and load up at these islands and the population could not replenish under such attack.
According to Kolbert, “Auks were used as fish bait, as a source of feather for stuffing mattresses, and fuel.” Much like the bison or American buffalo on the American Great Plains they were slaughtered wantonly, sometimes even just maimed and released to die at their leisure. Estimates were that at the time of European discovery in the 1500s there were as many as a hundred thousand mating pairs on Funk Island. By the late 1700s, the decrease in their numbers was large enough to be noticed. This was unfortunate because it set off a mania as collectors for both museums and for individual collections became determined to find examples of birds and eggs for their collection, further hastening their end.
There had been three mating areas for the Great Auks. The first was Funk Island and right on the shipping lanes it was quickly disposed of. The second was Geirfuglasker Island which was taken out by a volcano in 1830. The last was a speck of an island called Eldey Island. Eldey became the Auks last stand. In June 1844 a group of Icelanders headed to Eldey by row boat. Among them Sigurour Iselfsson, Ketil Ketilsson, and Jon Brandsson fought the terrible landing conditions and went ashore. They found one pair of Great Auks and one egg. The birds tried to run, but were quickly caught. The men strangled the birds and tossed the egg aside after seeing it had cracked. The pair of birds were sold for roughly nine dollars in period money (approximately $300 in today’s money). The innards were sent to the Royal Museum in Copenhagen. The female Auk skin is now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, one of 78 such specimens on display around the world. The story is known because two British naturalists, John Wolley and Alfred Newton, spent the summer of 1858 in Iceland in search of any sign of an Auk and talked to everyone they could find who had ever seen one, including men from that 1844 “hunting” trip. They realized the Auk was extinct. Newton was so moved and concerned by the experience that he set out on a mission to protect remaining species and The Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds that he pushed for passage in the United Kingdom was one of the first wildlife protection laws.
An Iowa Great Auk
Locally a replica Great Auk was for many years displayed in Bird Hall as part of the Natural History Museum on the University of Iowa Campus. Now like the examples in the NPR story above, it’s in storage.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.