The Great Auk

11th February 2005 at 00:00
On June 3, 1844, three Icelandic fishermen stumbled on a pair of uncommon seabirds on the rocky island of Eldey. Variously known as garefowl, riesenalk, apponath and the penguin of the north, the Great Auk was the largest of the Alcidae family of birds that includes puffins, guillemots and razorbills.

Once described as "an ancient mariner with a white waistcoat, a black 'beetle coat', an ugly nose and a helpless pair of arms", it stood upright, and measured some 75cm.

Although unable to take to the air, once in the water, these birds knew how to fly. So it is hardly surprising that they spent most of their lives at sea, emerging on to dry land in great flocks only to breed.

It was these breeding colonies that from earliest times attracted hungry fishermen. For the birds were a ready source of food and fuel, being plump, fatty, and easy to catch.

By the 19th century, these once numerous creatures had been hunted almost to extinction - at which point, rarity value made them valuable prizes for taxidermists and egg-collectors.

Unusually large, and clearly unable to fly, the hapless creatures spotted by those three fishermen waddled towards the safety of the waves. But the men, more agile on land than their victims would ever be, quickly blocked their escape. Within minutes, the chase was over, and the pair, their necks broken, were unceremoniously slung over the fishermen's shoulders and carried away.

Thus was a species snuffed out. For tradition has it that these two individuals were the very last Great Auks. And even if tradition over-sensationalises the event, they were very probably the last of their species to be seen alive. And so it was that, even as Darwin was pondering the diversity of creation, the Victorian gentry and their ruthless dealers were condemning the largest known seabirds to become food for moths.

As for the last known members of their species, their fate was even more demeaning. The skinless corpses, one male, the other female, were bought by a Copenhagen museum, where their internal organs, pickled in spirits, remain to this day.

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