On Friday, I got a second hand copy of Errol Fuller’s book ‘The Great Auk’. I read it voraciously during the weekend. A fantastic book, highly recommended, it contains most things known about these extinct birds, including detailed descriptions of every surviving specimen and egg, and short biographies of notable Great Auk researchers. The book is extensively illustrated too. The Great Auk or Garefowl, Pinguinus impennis, is a relative of the Razorbill and Guillemot, diving seabirds that feed on fish and crustaceans. The last Great Auks were killed in a small island off the SW coast of Iceland in the summer of 1844. During postglacial times and possibly up to the Middle Ages, the Great Auk was widely distributed in the North Atlantic, from the Mediterranean to Florida and from South Greenland to the Barents Sea, as their fossils document. They were recorded in historical times from Ireland, St Kilda, the Orkneys and the Isle of Man. Fossil bones, from medieval to 4,000 years old have been found in middens from South Shields, Orkneys and Lindisfarne and the isle of Man too.
The Great Auk was a flightless bird, as large as a cormorant, but heavier, its wings not large enough to allow flight, but allowing it to excel in its diving capabilities. Flightlessness meant that successful breeding was restricted to islands and inaccessible cliffs, free from predators, and presumably they were limited to breeding in islands with plentiful fish resources nearby. They arrived to their breeding places in May and left in early July. They laid their single egg on a ledge not far from the water that they incubated for a month. The young will soon join its parents at sea to be fed.
With the advent of boats, Great Auks became easy prey of hunters and fishers. Later, its largest breeding colony off Newfounland, Funk Island (previously known as Penguin Island) became the first landing for Atlantic crossings. Hungry sailors would feed on the birds and slaughter them in their tens of thousands for their oil, meat and feather, for many years until by the 1800s none was left there. Iceland, and particularly an island surrounded by rough seas of difficult access, became their last refuge. But they were not to last. Although the last specimens were caught to supply museums and collectors, the species had already been reduced to a few pairs, and the monetary inducement to seamen to hunt them probably just acted to save them from the pot.
Few descriptions remain of the live bird, my favourite is the following from Olaus Wormius, from his 1655 book, based on one he kept for a few months as a pet. The bird is illustrated too by Wormius, standing quite upright like a Guillemot.
‘This bird was brought to me from the Faroe Islands, I kept it alive for some months at my house. It was a young one, for it had not arrived at such bigness as to exceed a common goose. It would swallow an entire herring at once and sometimes three successively before it was satisfied. The feathers on its back were so soft and even that they resembled black velvet. Its belly was of pure white, above the eyes it had a round white spot of the bigness of a Dollar that you would have sworn it were a pair of spectacles (which Clusius observed not)* neither were its wings of that figure he expresses, but a little broader with a border of white.’
Although I knew that the Great Auks were the first birds that were called ‘penguins’, I wasn’t aware of one of the hypothesised origins of the name. Presumably ‘pengwyn’ means ‘white head’ in Welsh, possibly referring to the white patches on the head of the Great Auk. Penguin was the favoured name in French too and is the genus name, Pinguinus. With the exploration of Antarctic waters, the similar sea diving, flightless birds found there were named penguins too. It was unfortunate that the original penguin did not get to survive.
I drew this imagined raft of Great Auks on my Wacom tablet, based on photographs of Great Auk specimens in Fullers book and one of my photos of a mixed auk raft off the Flamborough coast.