Monday, April 6, 2015

The Great Auk

Part Five

Great Auk (J.G. Keulemans) showing juveniles and eggs
In prehistoric times, the Great Auk lived in harmony with humankind.  They were taken (with difficulty) for meat and eggs. Oil rendered from their bodies was used for heat and light.  When the early explorers came to North America they noticed large numbers of the birds on the Grand Banks.  This became known among seafarers and their presence in numbers was used as a geographical locator for the Grand Banks.  

Records of the existence of the Great Auk go back into antiquity.  They were a food source for the Neanderthals.  They are represented in cave paintings in southern Europe.  Images were carved into the walls of El Pendo Cave in Spain over 35,000 years ago.  They were painted on the walls of caves in France’s Grotte Cosquer 20,000 years ago.  They were used as food by the Beothuk people.  They were used by the early explorers starting with the Vikings in the 1100s.  Jacques Cartier (1534) and many other early explorers landed at Funk Island and filled their ships with salted birds.  In 1536 King Henry VIII sent an expedition to the New World led by Hore which landed on Funk Island and slaughtered many birds.  These are only a few examples of very many.

Great Auk painting by J.G. Keulemans showing Both Alternate and Basic Plumages
The birds were also used by humans in art and adornment.  Archaic Maritime people used their beaks for adornment and were often buried with Great Auk bones.  We have  one engraving of a Great Auk drawn from a live model dating to 1655.  This was done by Ole Worm of Copenhagen.  He had a live auk brought to him by one of the Danish expeditions and he kept this bird as a pet.  The collar he wore around the bird’s neck shows in the engraving as a white band.  It is interesting that many of the depictions of the species after that show a white neck ring which the bird did not have at all.  It was the collar!  The Great Auk has been painted by many early watercolour artists including John James Audubon, Errol Fuller, George Edward Lodge, Heinrich Harder, and Roger Tory Peterson.  Unfortunately today the Great Auk has become a symbol for the destruction of life on Earth.

Line Drawing of Great Auk by Ole Worm 1655 showing 'collar'
Bones of the Great Auk collected from Funk Island 1960 (NB Museum)

In spite of all the bad resulting from the untimely end to the Great Auk, there has been some good.  Its demise laid the early work for protective legislation for birds and the environment.  People became aware that the species was in trouble in the 1700s.  In 1794 Great Britain passed a law banning the killing of the birds for their feathers and eggs.  Violators of this law in 1775 were punished by being publicly flogged.  These laws were difficult to enforce because killing for bait was still allowed.  At least this planted the idea for legal protection for wild species.

The slaughter of the Great Auk continued unabated for two centuries.  Funk Island off Newfoundland was the largest and last known colony.  The island got its name from the stench of the slaughter that went on there.  The hundreds of thousands of birds nesting there were totally wiped out by 1800.  Funk Island is not quiet today because murres, razorbills, puffins, gannets and other species nest there.  But, in a way, it still is sickeningly quiet.  The deep hoarse croak of the Great Auk will never again be heard there or anywhere else.  Man alone is responsible for the extinction of this species since there has been no depletion in its food resources until recent years.  In the words of John Stevens, “.. the wanton extermination of a whole species is an expression of human ugliness, a perverse preliminary to man’s own suicide.” (Bodsworth, p.xii) 

Funk Island, Newfoundland

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