Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

Part One

Great Auk by John Gould

On Fogo Island off Newfoundland’s north coast stands a 2 metre-high cast bronze statue to a famous bird, the Great Auk.  It is facing east in the direction of Funk Island where the Great Auk once bred by the hundreds of thousands.  The statue was sculpted by Todd McGrain as part of a series honouring extinct birds.

Any story about the Great Auk very much involves Atlantic Canada where they once thrived in the millions.  Huge numbers plied our waters and nested on our rocky marine islands.  I say plied because these were flightless, penguin-like birds.  In fact, they were the original penguins.  They swam in huge flotillas in our waters where they fed on fish and crustaceans.  In recent times (1600s to 1800s) eight places were known where large numbers nested each year.  Many of these were in Atlantic Canada:  off the northern coast of Labrador, on Funk Island, NL and on at least 2 other islands off Newfoundland, on the Magdalen Islands, possibly off Cape Breton, and farther south in Massachusetts Bay. They also nested off Greenland, Iceland, northern Ireland, Northern Scotland and Norway.  During spring and fall migrations they swam in our waters, through the Strait of Belle Isle, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cabot Strait, along the north shore of Newfoundland, around Cape Breton and down the Nova Scotia shore.  These birds were great distance travellers.  

The Great Auk has been presumed extinct since 1844 when the last 2 birds were slaughtered on Eldey Island, Iceland.  However, there was an accepted sighting of one individual on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in 1852.  They were officially declared extinct in 1860.  Since then there has been nothing but a silent, dark void even though there was much searching in the late 1800s.  Extinction!  What a sick concept.

What remains of this beautiful bird?  For our being part of North America where it was so populous, we do not have much.  Unfortunately most specimens went to zealous European collectors in the 1800s and early 1900s.  The New Brunswick Museum has a few bones collected from Funk Island.  The same is true of the NS Museum in Halifax.  They also have a block of peat which contains the remains of at least one specimen.  I could not find any evidence of remains in Newfoundland museums.  However, there are many Great Auk bones remaining in Newfoundland from the great slaughter that went on there.

The only worldly remains today of the Great Auk are 78 mounted specimens, 24 complete skeletons, 2 collections of preserved viscera, and around 75 eggs.  Fifteen of these mounted specimens are now in Great Britain, which is the largest collection of any country.  Other specimens are in Iceland, Belgium, Germany, and Los Angeles, USA.  Thousands of bones have been collected from former breeding colonies and from Neolithic middens.  Great Auk mounted specimens and eggs are so precious they all have identifying numbers which are catalogued.  

Great Auk Mounted Specimen and Egg; Kelvingrove, Glasgow

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