Wednesday, 25 July 2012

For Auks' Sake

                                Dodos and Solitaires are not the only birds to be totally wiped out by the hand of man. The nineteenth century saw the demise of, amongst others, the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), another flightless species. The Great Auk lived in North Atlantic waters, ranging from the shores of North America, through Greenland and Iceland, to Britain, Norway and the north of Europe. It stood about 33 inches tall, weighed about ten pounds, with a large, grooved bill and distinctive black and white plumage. They live in dense colonies, mated for life, and nested on the bare rock of isolated islands, laying a single egg. 

The Great Auk - Archibald Thorburn

The Great Auk was also known as the Garefowl (probably from Icelandic Gyer, meaning ‘spear’, which may refer to the shape of its beak, or its swiftness in the water), but also the Penguin. And here is where the etymological wranglings start – some say this comes from Pin-wing, on account of the small size of its wings (unlikely), other have it coming from the Welsh Pen Gwyn – ‘white head’ (maybe, but just how many loan words are there from Welsh), or from Latin Pinguis – ‘fat’ (possible – the birds were very oily). However, regardless of the name, when explorers began to go to the Southern hemisphere and saw the black and white, flightless seabirds, they named them for the nearest thing they could relate them to – the Penguin. 

Great Auk - from British Zoology Vol 2 William Pennant 1776

Humans and Great Auks had co-existed for centuries, and the birds had been an important part of the lives and culture of indigenous maritime peoples. Early European explorers of the Americas exploited the Great Auk as a food and fuel source, and as fishing bait, and with the declining numbers of Eider ducks, the plumage became valuable as stuffing for quilts and cushions. The trade in feathers seriously affected numbers of the birds, and early conservation laws were passed to protect the declining population, although these laws were largely ineffective. The hunting practices and methods of harvesting the birds can be seen here: -  
“When the water is smooth, they make their shallops fast to the shore, lay their gang-boards from the gunwale of the boat to the rocks, and then drive as many penguins on board, as she will hold; for the wings of those birds being remarkably short, they cannot fly. But it has been customary of late years, for several crews of men to live all the summer on that island, for the sole purpose of killing birds for the sake of their feathers, the destruction which they have made is incredible. If a stop is not soon put to that practice, the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing, particularly the penguins [i.e. Great Auks].” 
Captain George Cartwright  Labrador Journal entry for Tuesday, July 5, 1785. 

Frontispiece - The Great Auk - Thomas Parkin 1911

When ornithologists and collectors realised the supply of birds was dwindling, they made concerted efforts to acquire what they could before they disappeared entirely which, of course, reduced the population even further. The distinguished ornithologist William Yarrell noted the Great Auk as very rare in the first edition of his magnificent A History of British Birds (1843), and refers to individual specimens seen or taken in the Orkneys and St Kilda in the 1820s, and quotes one Graba as saying, “ … none have been seen in Greenland, Iceland, or Faroe of late years.” 

The Great Auk - from A History of British Birds William Yarrell 1843

However, a colony had been found in 1835, of about fifty birds, on Geirfuglasker (Great Auk Rock), a tiny volcanic island off the shore of Iceland. Collectors took what they could, and after volcanic activity disturbed them, the remaining birds moved to Eldey, a tiny islet nearby. It was here that the last two remaining Great Auks were taken, on June 3rd 1844. John Wolley, the naturalist and egg-collector (and friend of H E Strickland of The Dodo and its Kindred fame), went with Alfred Newton, another great ornithologist, to Iceland in 1858, and met the men who had taken them. Unfortunately, Wolley died the following year but his researches were presented by Newton in the ornithological journal The Ibis in May 1861. 

Alfred Newton's report in The Ibis May 1861

Wolley’s record from the Icelanders says, 
The Gare-fowls [i.e. Great Auks] showed not the slightest disposition to repel the invaders, but immediately ran along under the high cliff, their heads erect, their little wings somewhat extended. They uttered no cry of alarm, and moved, with their short steps, about as quickly as a man could walk. Jón [Brandsson] with outstretched arms drove one into a corner, where he soon had it fast. Sigurður [Ísleifsson] and Ketill [Ketilsson] pursued the second, and the former seized it close to the edge of the rock, here risen to a precipice some fathoms high, the water being directly below it … the birds were strangled and cast into the boat.” 

Great Auk eggs - from Ootheca Wolleyana Vol 2 - Wolley and Newton 1864

Wolley and Newton collected blown eggs from Iceland, and excavated a great number of bones, which they returned to England. In a revised edition of his History (1871), Yarrell updates his entry and declares the species to be extinct, including in the piece that Newton had reported to him that of the remaining specimens, “… he estimates their number at seventy-seven skins or mounted birds, and there are sixty-nine egg-shells.” 

Title page - The Great Auk - Thomas Parkin 1911

In 1911, Thomas Parkin counted 80 skins or mounts and 73 eggs, with another coming to light later in 1918. (Modern estimates are of 78 skins or mounts and 74 eggs). Parkin wrote two texts on the Great Auk, the first The Great Auk, Or Garefowl (1894) is a paper he delivered to the Hastings and St. Leonards Natural History Society on June 28th, 1894; the second is a record of the sales of Great Auk specimens and eggs sold in public auctions from 1806 to 1910. In the early 1850s, eggs sold for about £20, but by the 1900s, prices had risen to over £300. In 1806, a mounted bird sold for £10, in 1895 another sold for £350. (In 1971, one sold for £9000). 

So, well done mankind, for continuing to know the price of something and the value of nothing.

Great Auk and Egg offered for sale - The Athenaeum March 22 1902

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