Bewitching tale of the bird that ruined a footman

The Great Auk

February 4, 2000

Among the 573 species of birds officially on the British list, recently revised by the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU), just one bears the sombre footnote "extinct". The last British great auk, suspected of being a witch responsible for stormy weather, was beaten to death in 1843 by St Kilda fishermen.

The final known encounter with man took place a year later on the island of Eldey, off the Icelandic coast, when a nesting pair was taken by fishermen commissioned by a Danish dealer in rare bird specimens. Other great auks may have lingered on, but there were no reliable later sightings and the largest representative of the auk family is now relegated to the pages of ornithological history, with the Mauritian dodo and the passenger pigeon.

Auks are seabirds of the north Atlantic, breeding in vast numbers on the sea cliffs in an arc from the northeast seaboard of Canada through the Arctic into western Europe. The great auk was five times bigger than the guillemot, the largest of the surviving auk family. It stood 70cm tall and weighed about 5kg. It was different from its smaller relatives in being flightless, and was frequently referred to as the penguin - or pin-win - before its better-known name was adopted to avoid confusion with the auks' counterparts in the southern Atlantic.

Erroll Fuller's latest book is more than a coffee-table compendium of 19th-century plates of a long-dead sea bird. He describes the bird's biology and behaviour as fully as is possible from the skimpy, and largely non-scientific, contemporary accounts, many of which were amassed by Cambridge academic Alfred Newton shortly after the bird's apparent extermination.

And he charts the chilling story of the slide towards oblivion that ended in 1844. The great auk was superbly adapted for a life at sea but shared with today's auks one weakness - the need to return to the shore each year to breed. At such times it was vulnerable and easily caught, and was thus inevitably going to be exploited by the then-small communities in Newfoundland and Iceland, as it probably had been for centuries.

The auk's tragedy was that it existed in sufficient numbers to be a ready source of fresh meat to the crews of the European fishing expeditions that from the 16th century onwards were beginning to exploit the abundance of cod off Newfoundland. From that point on the bird was as doomed as the dodo 150 or so years earlier and the passenger pigeon by the end of the 19th century.

Sadly for the great auk, its strongholds were all too convenient. Vast numbers were slaughtered for food, far beyond the ability of the birds to sustain viable populations. A further twist of fate was that the bird was dwindling in numbers just as the obsession with collecting specimens of rare species for taxidermy, and of eggs, reached its height in Europe. It was the greed of collectors that sealed the fate of the Eldey birds.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a painstakingly researched and presented listing of all the surviving preserved great auks in museum collections or, in a few cases, still in the hands of private collectors. The trade was characterised by greed, obsession, dishonesty, and deception. Fuller mentions the unfortunate fate of a British nobleman's footman dismissed for dropping a prized great auk egg. Some universities, including Cambridge and Durham, were at the forefront of the scramble that fuelled the market in the 19th century.

But with the outbreak of the first world war the bubble burst for the inflated prices demanded for specimens. Most are now in museum collections and only two stuffed specimens and a handful of eggs remain in private hands. Few now come on to the open market - Fuller mentions the 1993 purchase for £30,000 by the Museum of Glasgow of a stuffed specimen originally owned by the University of Durham. Remarkably, most of the stuffed auks known at the end of the last century survive. While a specimen in Dresden escaped both the firebombing of 1945 and subsequent looting by the Red army, one at Mainz was lost in the war, and a second was destroyed in the fire that engulfed the Museu Bocage in Lisbon in 1978.

The jury is still out on whether man simply delivered the final blow in an inevitable process of selection. Once populations had dwindled below a certain level, the ability of the species to reproduce was already in question. Ironically the BOU's new list for Britain's birds identifies a long-term decline in the populations of 23 of our most familiar bird species, in some cases up to 90 per cent in three decades. It would be encouraging if a greater understanding of the process that led to the loss of the great auk gave impetus to recognising that extinction is not just a phenomenon of the 19th century.

David Jobbins is foreign editor, The THES .

The Great Auk

Author - Erroll Fuller
ISBN - 0 9533553 0 6
Publisher - Erroll Fuller
Price - £45.00
Pages - 448

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