The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless bird of the alcid family that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus . Although the auk was actually unrelated to penguins, it was the first bird to be called a penguin.
It bred on rocky, isolated islands with easy access to the ocean and a plentiful food supply; a rarity in nature that provided only a few breeding sites for the auks.
When not breeding, the auks spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain and also around the coast of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain.
The great auk was 75 to 85 centimeters (30 to 33 in) tall and weighed around 5 kilograms (11 lb), making it the second largest member of the alcid family. It had a black back and a white belly. The black beak was heavy and hooked, with grooves on its surface. During summer, the great auk’s plumage showed a white patch over each eye. During winter, the auk lost these patches, instead developing a white band stretching between the eyes.
The wings were only 15 centimeters (5.9 in) long, rendering the bird flightless. Instead, the auk was a powerful swimmer, a trait that it used in hunting. Its favorite prey was fish, including Atlantic menhaden and capelin, and crustaceans. Although agile in the water, it was clumsy on land. Great auk pairs mated for life.
They nested in extremely dense and social colonies, laying one egg at a time. The egg was white with variable brown marbling. Both parents incubated the egg for about six weeks before the young hatched. The young auk left the nest site after two or three weeks although the parents continued to care for it.
The great auk was an important part of many Native American cultures, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. Many ancient people were buried with great auk bones, and one was buried covered in over 200 auk beaks, which are assumed to have been part of a cloak made of their skins.
Early European explorers to the Americas used the auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird’s down was in high demand in Europe, a factor which largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon began to realize that the great auk was disappearing, and it became the beneficiary of many early environmental laws, but this proved not to be enough.
Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird. On 3 July 1844, the last two confirmed specimens were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, which also eliminated the last known breeding attempt.
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