Great Auk – It Was Very Good

Great Auk
Great Auk, John Gerrard Keulemans, 1871-1896

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

The Great Auk was a flightless bird endemic to the North Atlantic until the late 19th century. The animals range once extended from Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain. With some records indicating that it traveled as far south as Spain in Euroasia and Florida in North America.

You might recognize the first word in the Auk’s Latin binomial, pinguinus, which is where we get our word penguin. The penguins we know today are named after the Great Auk, though the two birds are not closely related.

The Great Auk stood between two and three feet tall and weighed around 11 pounds. Its feathers were a glossy black and white, black on the upper and white on the lower, with a pattern of white feathers on both sides of the head between the beak eyes.  Their beaks were black with white grooves along it. Its feet and claws were black and webbed. Juveniles had less prominent grooves in their beaks and had mottled white and black necks.

Great Auks were excellent swimmers, using their wings to swim underwater. Their main food was fish.

Great Auk
Taxidermied Great Auk

The Great Auk went extinct around the mid-1850s. The bird was hunted for its down feathers, for food, and even as an alternative fuel. As the bird became increasingly rare it became more and more attractive to the wealthy of Europe as a collectible and museums for their specimen cabinets. The last Great Auk in Great Britain was reportedly beaten to death with a stick on the suspicion that it was a witch. The last North Atlantic colony was eliminated when the last two adults were strangled for their pelts and their lone egg crushed under bootheel.

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Author: Jonathon

Doesn’t mix well with polite company; his two favorite topics being politics and religion. Would rather be out cycling, swimming, running, or camping. Misspent his youth reading genre-fiction; today, he is making up for it by reading large quantities of non-fiction literature. The fact that truth, in every way, is more fascinating than fiction still tickles him.

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