The Great Auk – Extinct 1844

The Great Auk was eighty centimetres tall, weighed around five kilos and looked like a large penguin. They spent most of their lives at sea but returned to land to nest. The great auk was a flightless bird and a fantastic swimmer and lived in the northern hemisphere. This bird ranged from Norway to Newfoundland and from Italy to Florida and its population must have numbered in millions.

The male and female great auks paired faithfully for life. The great auk only laid one egg at a time with both parents incubating the egg until it hatched. Native Americans and Palaeolithic Europeans hunted the great Auk. Sixty five kilometres off Newfoundland’s North East coast a slab twenty hectares in area rises above the waves (Funk Island). In the early sixteenth century Europeans made regular voyages to Newfoundland lured by the rich cod fisheries. They came across this island covered in birds nesting shoulder to shoulder and many of these were auks. As agile and fast as the auk was in water, they were slow and clumsy on land. They were easy pickings for the sailors and so the slaughter began.

Funk Island became a regular stop for fishing vessels. The auks were used for food, as bait, their feathers for mattresses and fuel. They were bludgeoned, plucked alive and burnt as fuel for cooking other auks. The feather trade was so lucrative that permanent teams of men established themselves on the island scalding and plucking. It is estimated that when Europeans first arrived on Funk Island there may have been one hundred thousand pairs of nesting auks. Each pair tending to one egg. Two centuries of depredation followed.

In the words of Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the book The Sixth Extinction, “By 1800 all the great auks of North America had been salted, plucked and deep fried into oblivion.” It is not known whether man killed every last auk at Funk Island or whether the population had been reduced to levels that were longer viable. The latter happens when the population of a species is reduced to such low numbers that it can longer survive its natural predators and the vagaries of nature.  At this point there was only one sizable colony of auks left in the world and this was on the island of Geirfluglasker off the coast of Iceland. A volcanic eruption destroyed this island in 1830.

The auks’ last refuge was on the Icelandic island of Eldey. The great auk had by this time become rare and its skin and eggs were also sought after by collectors. This was its final undoing as the auks likely produced just one egg a year. The last known pair of auks were killed on Eldey on July 3rd 1844. Fishermen attacked and killed the birds crushing the egg they were tending to under their boots. We know that the great auk existed at the very least 100,000 years ago as archaeological evidence shows that it was being eaten by Neanderthals in Europe. A species that had survived on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years was annihilated by humans in just 200 years.