Friday, April 3, 2015

The Great Auk

Part Four

Great Auk by R. T. Peterson
In very early times humans appeared to use these birds in a responsible way for food.  Early mankind would visit the breeding sites and take a few birds and eggs.  Early explorers would take some for food on their ships.  But when North America was opened up and, starting in the 1700s, heavy exploitation and abuse began.  The atrocities that took place against this species are unimaginable.  It was so bad it is not something I like to think about or write about.  It was a disgrace to mankind.  Suffice it to say that the birds were slaughtered, beaten, burned alive, stripped of their skin and feathers while still alive, scalded alive, and eggs and young stepped on or left to starve and die.  They were wantonly slaughtered and wasted, to say the least.  Because they were flightless and bravely remained on the islands protecting their young and eggs when the plunderers arrived, they were easy targets.  Against mankind, there was no hope.

There were fundamental reasons they became extinct.  Even though they chose islands far away from mainland they were still vulnerable when man developed good seaworthy boats.  They had heavy fat stores which made them vulnerable to be rendered for oil.  They had a thick feather coat which in late years made them victims of the feather and millinery industry.  They were large birds with large eggs making them a worthwhile species to plunder.  They had no fear of mankind making them easy to catch or herd into corrals or up gangplanks onto boats.  

There is another reason they became extinct which is unfortunate.  For eons the main breeding island off Iceland was Geirfuglasker which was so protected by volcanic rocks that it was inaccessible to humans.  But in 1830 a volcanic eruption destroyed the island and the birds moved their breeding colony to nearby Eldey Island.  This island was accessible to humans. 

Eldey Island, Iceland
For hundreds of years the eider duck was exploited for its feathers (eider down).  When they became scarce, the feather industry turned to the Great Auk.  This was the last straw for the auks.  It was the feather industry which finally wiped them out.  Also, as they became scarce, they became the victims of collectors, a popular Victorian pastime.  Their mounted bodies and eggs became more and more valuable as they got scarcer and hence they sustained more exploitation.  It is amazing that the scientists were making study collections of a rare bird and making it extinct at the same time! 

Prices for eggs and mounts reached unbelievable prices.  In 1832 an egg was worth almost twice the annual salary of a skilled worker.  In 1898 a skin and egg together sold for the equivalent of £50,000.  In the early 1970s the remains of one bird were sold to an American collector for $30,000.  In 1971, the Iceland Natural History Museum paid £9,000 for a mounted specimen.

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