On this day in 1844, the last two Great Auks—large, flightless birds that bred on the rocky, isolated islands of the North Atlantic—were killed by three men from Scotland for collectors. They were the last known surviving auks in the world.
The Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis, was a large bird, approximately 5 kilograms in weight and 70 centimetres in length, with an upright posture and black-and-white colouring similar to a penguin. The flightless Great Auk nested in colonies on rocky islands and ocean shores, primarily in the North Atlantic, off the coasts of Newfoundland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Greenland, and Canada.
According to historical evidence, the Great Auk had been hunted by humans for more than 100,000 years, beginning with Native Americans, Maritime Archaic peoples, and early European explorers to the Americas. Some early peoples were buried with more than 200 auk beaks and Europeans were thought to have used the auk as a food source and even as fishing bait. Auk eggs were a valued food source, three times the size of other seabird eggs and containing a large, rich yolk. The bird’s down was also in high demand in Europe, where it was made into status-conscious cloaks, coats, and mufflers for the elite of society. As such, the auk was largely eliminated from European lands by the mid-16th century.
Recognising the precious species’ endangered status, the Great Auk received its first official protection in 1553 and in 1794 Great Britain banned the killing of the Great Auk for its feathers. Similar laws were passed in St. John’s and other auk territories. But it was too late. Unfortunately, the dwindling population of the birds only spurred collectors to kill and stuff the increasingly rare birds as prized taxidermy specimens. By the 1840s, it was thought only a handful of Great Auks survived. By June 1844 the Great Auks’ numbers had dwindled to just a three or four birds.
During a severe storm off the Scottish isles, local islanders found one of the birds, blamed the storm on it, tried it by jury and stoned or beat it to death for witchcraft. And on 3 June 1844, three men set out for the island of Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, to collect that last remaining auk specimens for a collector. They found two auks at a nest, killed the two birds and took their one egg, then sold them at an exorbitant price.
They were the last Great Auks ever to be seen on Earth.
Caption: A Pinguinus impennis, also known as a Great Auk.