An Exploration of the Historical and Artistic Remanence of the Only Flightless Bird of the Northern Hemisphere
A sea-faring bird of comical proportions and an acquiescent demeanor, the Great Auk possessed a number of evolutionary traits that, when met with profiteering fisherman, made the auk an easy target. Consequently, the Great Auk became extinct by 1844 due to its commercial exploitation for food, feathers, and the sheer novelty of the specimen and eggs. This essay will recount our understanding of the species, its representation in art, and the factors that led to its decline.
Geographically, “The Great Auk was found in an arc that extended from Gibraltar up the European coast to the North Atlantic, west to Iceland, Greenland, and then south to Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and down the American coast as far as Florida.” (Cokinos 2000, 311) During breeding season, which occurred for a brief period in late spring to early summer, the birds would collectively gather on rocky islands off the coast of Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, Newfoundland, and Labrador. Remaining below the arctic circle, the Great Auks gathered once a year in colonies where the female Great Auks would lay a single pyriform egg. They made no nest but laid the egg directly on the rocky island terrain.
It is speculated that the pyriform (or pear) shape of the egg prevented it from rolling off with the same rapidity of a rounded egg. The eggs were white in color with a series of uniquely patterned dark streaks and blotches which, it has been suggested, may have aided with egg identification among the auk parents. The Great Auk itself measured about 30 inches tall and featured a large bill marked with grooves. Small wings and a rotund body rendered the bird incapable of flight but enabled it to be an excellent marine navigator. Christopher Cokinos explains in his book Hope Is the Thing with Feathers that “Sometime in the course of its evolutionary history, the Great Auk gave up flight to become a specialist: a diving bird able to stay submerged for perhaps as long as 15 minutes, capable of reaching depths of 250 feet or more” (Cokinos 2000, 311).
This flightless bird also evolved with a distinct absence of terrestrial predators in the remote islands of the North Atlantic, thus producing a somewhat docile disposition in the Great Auk. Unfortunately, the combination of its limited mobility on land, coupled with its conditioned lack of concern with terrestrial predators positioned the bird as too easy a target for fishermen. Organized raids were carried out by fishermen from Iceland, Greenland, and mainland Europe, pillaging the Great Auks’ nesting sites every year. Period accounts describe the manner in which raiders would herd the suggestible birds along planks and directly into their waiting ships. Likewise, the eggs were systematically collected with major repercussions for the species that would not have the chance to increase in numbers until the following year when the female Auks could lay another, singular egg.
In addition to being an easily harvested food source, the Great Auk was also prized for its downy feathers, oily composition, and novel acclaim. As its uses expanded, the species numbers severely declined, causing the bird’s scarcity to inflate its desirability among European and American collectors. Consequently, the market for Great Auk skins and egg specimens increased.
It was one such Great Auk specimen that John James Audubon based his illustration on as part of his monumental folio The Birds of America. Purchased from a London auction house in 1836, the taxidermied Great Auk (shown above) served as reference material for Audubon as representations of the species in the wild were by this time infrequently found. The result is a large double-elephant folio print showing the bird positioned upright on land and swimming in the water against a rocky marine backdrop added by his printmaker Robert Havell (Audubon’s Bien edition of the plate is shown below). The print is memorable not only for its association with Audubon but for the period in history that it marks as the final years of the Great Auks’ existence.