If you were asked to name an extinct species of bird, what comes to mind? Many folk would instantly exclaim “Dodo!”, the famous giant flightless pigeon from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, that became extinct in the 1600s. But how many of you would immediately think of the great auk, even though it was relatively recently extinct (mid 1800s), native to our shores here in the UK, was our biggest seabird (almost a metre tall and weighing 5kg), and was the original penguin? Surely it doesn’t get more memorable than that?!
Yes, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) really was the original “penguin” – derived from the Welsh “pen gwyn” (“white head”, due to the large white patches on the front of its head) or maybe “pin-wing” due to its tiny wings. When fur sealers first went to Antarctica and saw present-day penguins, they named them “penguins” because these black and white flightless seabirds looked so like the great auks from back home in the British Isles (although they are actually unrelated). Gentoo penguins in particular display striking convergent evolution with great auks in terms of size and plumage patterning, even sharing the same white patches on their heads – might the two head patches help to coral prey underwater?
I write this on the 181st anniversary of the death of the last great auk recorded in the UK. The poor creature was bludgeoned to death on the rocky stack of Stac an Armin, in the St Kilda archipelago, in July 1840; its punishment for being a witch that summoned a storm. Way before this tragic event, archaeological evidence from Orkney suggests that great auks were abundant in the stone age when the first human settlers arrived there (~6000 years ago) – or at least they were frequently eaten and their bones discarded in middens. Being flightless, like the dodo, they were easy prey to humans and by the Viking era (~1200 years ago) great auks were already rare around the British Isles.
The largest colony of great auks in written records was on Funk Island, Newfoundland, previously called “Penguin Island” by 17th Century sailors. A 1718 publication quoted a sailor as describing the island as “…entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.” Once European sailors discovered Penguin Island, the great auks were killed en masse for food (the sailors were desperate for meat), feathers (for bedding), fishing bait (!), oil (for lamps) and, even more disgustingly, they were even just burnt for fuel (some, it was said, while still alive). Their upcoming demise was predicted in 1785 by the explorer George Cartwright who wrote: “A boat came in from Funk Island laden with birds, chiefly penguins… it was customary for several crews of men to live all 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.”
Sure enough, by 1810 the Funk Island colony of this k-selected (slow-maturing, slow-breeding, long-lived) seabird was empty. Then came the Victorian collectors, who paid large sums of money to local fishermen in Iceland, the great auk’s last remaining home, for “collecting” the final few survivors to be skinned and stuffed. It didn’t help that, in 1830, their breeding site, a rocky islet called Geirfuglasker (Icelandic for “Great Auk Skerry”), disappeared beneath the waves due to volcanic activity. The wretched birds had little choice than to move to a nearby islet, Eldey. Here, the last breeding pair of great auks was strangled and their egg crushed clumsily underfoot, on the 3rd June 1844 on commission from a British collector.
Why am I writing about great auks, and why now? Well, I experienced a series of difficult events between 2016 and 2019, one after the other, until I felt completely destroyed. With a background in seabird biology and conservation, to me it chimed metaphorically with the events that led to the demise of the great auk. I needed a challenging and committing project to take my mind completely away from the morass in my head. Some people walk around the coast of Britain or kayak the length of the Americas as their catharsis. I chose to honour the great auk by telling its story through art – I made a different great auk painting or drawing every single day of the year throughout 2019. Looking back over these 365 pictures now, 1.5 years on, an interesting pattern emerges, of which I was not conscious at the time, that surely reflects emotional healing. The earlier pictures usually depict a single auk in black and white, standing alone on land (the open sea was where great auks were really at home; they were clumsy and vulnerable on land). The pictures often depict them suffering, being trapped, tortured or killed. Later in the year, colour is introduced, sometimes with another auk or other animals. After a long while a healthy colony of parents and chicks is drawn; coloured pictures of father auks escorting their successfully fledged chicks at sea; and eventually the auks are swimming underwater together, in their element, catching fish. Extinction reversed!
Talking of which, there are currently “Revive & Restore” projects afoot investigating the possibility of bringing back certain extinct species using genomic biotechnologies from genetic material recuperated from specimens. The main focus is currently on the passenger pigeon, with woolly mammoth also on the list. The great auk was considered as a contender but is on the back burner for now.
Personally, I would love to have great auks back as a British breeding seabird – wouldn’t it be amazing to go to Shetland, take a long windy walk along the rugged west coast of the island of Yell to the Aa Stack? Hear the deafening sound of throngs of great auks grunting and croaking “Aaa!” Smell the overwhelming stench of the guano, acrid in the back of your throat. Watch the constant movement – see how several leap simultaneously from rock to sea and swim away under the water like a missile. Many others are clambering and waddling up the steep stack to their nest site, fighting back at the neighbours who stab at them on their way through the crowds to swap incubation duty or feed their chick. Some couples are lovingly preening their mates, others are scratching off the Ixodes uriae ticks. There is one just standing around, showing off its beak-full of glistening fish for all to admire (and a great black-backed gull to steal!). The sea below is full of great auks on the water, some bathing, some accompanying their newly fledged chick out to sea. The sound, smell and sight is simply breath-taking!
We cannot let any of our wildlife to reach the brink again. However, I must end this piece with a very worrying turn of events in UK conservation policy. A terrible decision has just been made by the 7th Quinquennial Review Group (the UK’s statutory “conservation” bodies) to change the eligibility criteria for which species are legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Species will be legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act only if they are in imminent danger of extinction (as defined by the highest categories in the IUCN red listing process), or those identified as “European Protected Species” (a difficult status to achieve). This not only means that it will be legal to kill or trade most UK species, but also means statutory moves will be taken in reaction to only catastrophic species declines. An open letter has been written by a large number of NGOs voicing their concerns and requesting a public consultation on this decision. Let’s hope this disastrous decision gets reversed – species are under enough pressure as it is, and this flies in the face of the huge investment by NGOs into conservation and the projects aiming to reverse extinctions. The irony is not lost – we must not wantonly risk any more repeats of the great auk, the passenger pigeon or the dodo.
Blog and all original artwork by Lucy Gilbert.
Dr Lucy Gilbert is a senior research fellow at IBAHCM. She has a chequered past in avian behavioural ecology, evolutionary genetics, and seabird & sea mammal ecology. She now focusses on multi-trophic and multi-ecosystem interactions, especially the highly ecologically complex tick and tick-borne disease systems, addressing questions about host community drivers of disease risk, the impacts of climate change, woodland expansion and wildlife management.