Great Auk, J.J. Audubon

Every Auk Has Its Day

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Jul 3, 2020 | by Chris Brown

“Prophet-like, that lone one stood.”

– From the account of the capture of the last Great Auk ever seen in the British Isles, June 1840.

Everything has a day, it seems. National Static Electricity Day, Ice Cream for Breakfast Day, which is followed about a week later by National Toothache Day. Timely enough. World Quark Day. National Argyle Day. There are one or more titles for every day of the year, so naturally July 3rd has a number to choose from. On top of being National ‘Eat Your Beans’ Day, National Chocolate Wafer Day AND National Fried Clams Day, it’s also World Seabird Day.

We could choose to celebrate legumes, bivalves, and cocoa confections pretty much any day of the year, and I suppose the same is true for seabirds, but I still had to wonder, “Why July 3rd?” Maybe because it’s the day before Independence Day? But it’s ‘World’ Seabird Day, that Ameri-centric thinking probably doesn’t fit. Maybe because it’s nesting season in the Northern Hemisphere? Maybe that was the only day left between World Fruit Cocktail Appreciation Day and International Talk Like A Pirate Day? The question remained: What is the significance of July 3? A quick Google session gave me the answer I was seeking; that particular date was chosen in honor of the deaths, and the lives, of one huge member of the puffin family.

The Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis, weighed 10-15 pounds and stood over two feet tall, looking much like a Razorbill with pituitary issues. White bellied and black above with oval patches between the eye and its massive beak, and with an upright posture they lended their scientific name to another chubby, upright family of birds, the penguins, which were discovered much later by explorers that recognized the superficial resemblance to the big auks. The exact origins of “Pinguinus”, and therefore “penguin”, are unclear but it may come from the Welsh words “pen” meaning white and “gwyn” meaning head, but it may refer to the birds small “pen wings” or “pinioned wings” which rendered the bulky birds unable to fly. In fact, Great Auk was the last flightless bird to occur in the Northern Hemisphere. Their large bodies were an adaptation to help them dive deeper in search of the large fish that were likely the base of their diet.

The core range of the Great Auk with major breeding colonies highlighted. From twilightbeasts.org

A cave painting at Cosquer, France likely shows a Great Auk.

The auks relationship with humans was a long one, spanning millennia. Their bones have been found near Neanderthal fire pits and refuse middens dating to 100,000 years ago. Birds closely resembling auks can be seen in ancient cave paintings in France, Spain, and Italy, some of them about 35,000 years old. Clearly their large bodies, inability to fly and clumsiness on land, and their large eggs with equally large and nutritious yolks would have been a desirable food source, thus making them targets even before they hatched. But the number of hungry humans in those days was pretty small, and the auks likely numbered in the millions. Many of their nesting areas were hard to reach and inhospitable, so the impact on the auk was likely negligible.

One of 78 remaining Great Auk skins can be found at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Photo by Lisa Fanning.

But an increasing and expanding human population in Western Europe and Scandinavia was itching to reach out to whatever might be across the ocean. Gradually, as people expanded into Greenland and Labrador, about the 8th century, the auk population began to show signs of stress. Increased pressure for food, fish bait, and for down to make pillows strained the population to the point of disappearing from some places where they were once common. The birds were one of the foods that fueled explorers like Jacques Cartier who mapped the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These explorers in turn accidentally introduced rats onto many of the islands that the auks nested on. These rats would feed on the eggs and young of many species of nesting seabirds.

The Great Auk received its first official protection in 1553 and in 1794 Great Britain outlawed the killing of auks for feathers, although they could still be killed for use as fish bait. By now the rarity of the birds had driven demand for skins and eggs for private collections and there was no saving the birds, even if anyone had tried. By 1800 the auk had been driven from many of its historic strongholds. The last auks ever seen in the British Isles were killed in 1840 at St. Kilda, Scotland, leaving only a small population in Iceland. On July 3, 1844 collectors discovered the last pair of Great Auks, which were incubating an egg, on the Icelandic island of Eldey. In their haste to capture the adults the collectors crushed the egg and with it the last glimmer of hope for a species.

I know that’s all terribly sad and scarcely a reason to celebrate. But the story of the Great Auk isn’t just a depressing example of a blow to biodiversity, it’s a real-life conservation parable. While obviously a sad tale, it is one with conservation themes with which I’m sure we are all familiar: over-exploitation, lack of protection for future generations of a species, invasive introduced species, encroachment on habitat, acting too late. Clearly we have made much progress in wildlife management and conservation since 1844 but those same threats still impact seabirds worldwide, and those old threats are augmented by a list of new ones which would have been unimaginable 176 years ago.

Maybe a question more apt than “Why July 3rd?”  is “What other date could possibly be better?” World Seabird Day is July 3rd because it’s an opportunity not only to pause briefly and reflect on the loss of a marvelous and unique species. More critically it is also an opportunity to focus on defending and protecting what we still have. It’s not just a day to remember a sad story about bird that couldn’t fly, it’s a day to remember the power we have to protect the many beautiful and fascinating species that remain. It’s a rallying cry to learn from the mistakes of the past and a reminder that it isn’t too late to change the future. 

“Yet, prophet-like, that lone one stood
With dauntless words and high,
That shook the sere leaves from the wood
As if a storm passed by,
Saying, “We are twins in death, proud Sun,
Thy face is cold, thy race is run,
‘Tis Mercy bids thee go.”

-From The Last Man, Thomas Campbell, 1823

P.S. Ice Cream for Breakfast Day is Feb 6, 2021 by the way; just in case you wanted that information.

A Great Auk specimen watches the approach of explorers at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Photo by Lisa Fanning @project.extinct

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