Posts Tagged ‘great auk’

Keulemans great auk

I have had discussions with people who don’t think that extinction of species is as big a deal as conservationists want to make out.

Mass extinctions are not uncommon in the history of the earth. We just happen to be living at the time a mass extinction. No harm. No foul.

But really it’s no fowl.

I think the most profound question about extinction is one I often hear politicians make about national debt or the strength of social insurance programs:  Surely you don’t want to leave behind that much debt for our children?  Surely you want social security to be around for future generations?

The concept of “generational theft” can also be brought to bear on the question of extinction.

There are many animals that I’ve never seen alive.

I came to late to see a sea mink slinking along a rocky Maine shore, and I came too late to see the skies blacken with passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews. I will never be able to visit the Falklands and see that unique island wolf that once roamed its beaches, and I will never know what it’s like to hear the Carolina parakeets, the great North American conure, flit through the forests of West Virginia.

These animals have all been robbed from me by the previous generations.

But I cannot go back in time and tell them to stop the madness. They were merely operating within the cultural frameworks of their time. Nature’s bounty appeared to be limitless, and then came the fall.

Even the scientists of the day weren’t aware of what they were doing.

A case in point is the great auk, a giant flightless sea bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It swam and dived much like the penguins of the southern oceans, but it was more agile than a penguin in the water.

The great auk was in the family of sea birds that includes the puffins, the murres, and guillemots. All living birds in the family can fly, but the great auk could not.  As a result, the great auk was forced to nest on remote islands with sloping approaches to the sea. All the other birds in the family could fly into jagged rocks that protruded from the sea, but the great auk was greatly handicapped in this regard.

To make matters worse, there were only a finite number of such islands in the whole North Atlantic, and each summer, they would become jammed with throngs of giant black-and-white birds.

Sailors on fishing and whaling ships were quick to notice  the boon that came from fat birds laying nice, plump eggs on easily accessed islands. Not only could they kill the birds and eat them, they could also collect their eggs. And if a whaling ship needed a bit more oil to top off its stores, it could render down some auks into oil. Fishermen used the meat for bait, and down collectors found its down a good substitute for eider.

In the early nineteenth century, its population crashed, and every naturalist worth his salt demanded eggs and skins of adults for taxidermy.  There was a rush to kill as many auks as possible and to collect as many eggs. Every gentleman naturalist wanted specimens and eggs for study, and the fishermen and whalers were happy to provide them.

It was in this madness that the last of the great auks were killed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland. The extinction of the great auk happened when three Icelandic fishermen came across a pair of the auks tending to their single egg.   Two men killed the adults, and the third man, perhaps angry that there were only two birds to be had, smashed their egg with his boot.

This attack happened on July 3, 1844, and that date is rather unique. It is one of the few times we know the very second of an extinction. Those auks were the last two birds of their kind, and they were killed in the name of scientific curiosity.

This story has been dramatized in so many books that it’s almost reached legendary status.

It’s because this is one of the few times we know exactly when the generational theft was complete.

Reading account after account of how numerous great auks were in the North Atlantic, my imagination is piqued.

What would have been like to see the great assemblages of auks on their islands?

It’s something I will never see. It’s something that I can only read about in books and conjure up in the back of my mind.

A piece of me is angry that the great auk was allowed to go extinct in this fashion, but it is that anger that I realize a simply moral truism.

What if someday, future generations look back on us and wonder why we didn’t do enough to stop the tiger or the cheetah from becoming extinct?

Extinction for both of these cats is a very real possibility, and if they do go, we will be as much robbers as the men who took the lives of the last auks.

Knowing what we know now, don’t we at least owe it to future generations to try to preserve a bit.

Is that too much to ask?

Or are we so consumed with ourselves that we can’t try  to save a bit?

The answer to that question is the one that will show us who we were to the historians of the future.

Were we able to hold forth on our engines of progress just a bit to allow a few truly remarkable wild things survive?

Or were we took caught up in the desire to subdue it all?

We are never going to return to the mythic age before man. Many anti-conservationists scoff at the strawman that claims that all conservationist want to do is destroy civilization and return it back to the days when all things were wild and untouched.

So long as humans exist on the planet, that goal can never be achieved, and all conservationists know this.

But just because we cannot return to the true ecological Garden of Eden doesn’t mean we can’t try to preserve what we can.

To refuse to do otherwise is to be comfortable with a terrible kind of generational theft.

I certainly am not.





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Portrait by Johannes Gerardus Keulemans

I remember learning as a very young child that polar bears do not hunt penguins. Penguins lives south of the Equator, while polar bears generally roam the Arctic Ocean and the margins of the continents on which it borders. The Polar bear’s range also includes areas south into the North Atlantic and North Pacific, but it is still a Northern Hemisphere species.

However, I have always wondered about the origin of the word penguin. It was only when I did some research on the etymology of this word that I was reconnected with an animal I had read about in Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America and Farley Mowat’s Sea of Slaughter. It seems the term Penguin originally applied to a North Atlantic species of large black-and-white seabird that had also lost its ability to fly.

The original penguin was the Great Auk, a species of sea bird that lived all over the North Atlantic from Norway to Eastern Canada. Mowat suggests that their range also extended south to Florida, but the accepted range for the bird is as I’ve described. The birds nested on rocky islands that were generally inaccessible to Arctic foxes, wolves, and polar bears, but polar bears did prey on this species when they got a chance.

The word penguin, though, has two basic theories of its origin. One is that the word is derived from the Welsh pen gwyn, which means “white head.”  The great auk had large white spots on the top of its head, so it is possible that the animal got its name from that feature. Another theory suggests that the term comes from the bird’s small wings, calling it a “pin-wing,” with “pin” being short for pinioned.  Another theory suggests that it comes from a Latin word for fat– pinguis.

The word first appears in Richard Hakluyt’s letters and treatises on voyages, and he mentions rookeries of penguins in Newfoundland. This term was then transferred onto the black and white birds of the South Pole and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere. These birds were similarly large and similarly colored, although the great auk is actually an auk and is not closely related to these birds.

There are two other names for this bird. The Norse and their descendants called the bird a Geirfugl or “spear bird.” The English always called it a garefowl, which is derived from the Norse word. Farley Mowat calls them “spearbills.”

Now, what happened to the Great Auk? Shouldn’t we be seeing the great rookeries of these birds on the islands of the North Atlantic? Well, there’s a problem.

The Great Auk’s flesh and its eggs were great food source for seafarers traveling across the North Atlantic. Its pelt could be turned into a coat, because the skin was rather thick and the bird’s feathers insulated it as well as the thickest fur. Then a market developed for the bird’s meat and eggs, and then gentlemen naturalists wanted the eggs, because the bird was becoming rare and they wanted a piece of this rapidly disappearing species.

In fact, it was the collectors who finally did the bird in.  ‘The last population of these birds could be found at Geirfuglasker (“Great Auk Island”) and the nearby island of Eldey in Iceland. The egg collectors then drove them Geirfuglasker to Eldey, where their rookery was accessible to only one side. It was on Eldey that the last nesting pair and their egg met their demise at the hands of Jón Brandsson, Sigurður Ísleifsson, and Ketill Ketilsson. This is one rare instance in which we know the the names of the people who killed off the last of a species.

And those three men committed a great crime against nature for which there can be no recompense. These great sea birds are now lost to the ages, existing only as taxidermied speciemens and preserved eggs.

So when we tell our children that the penguin has nothing to fear from the polar bear, remember the long lost penguin of the North Atlantic that actually established its rookeries to avoid the Great White Bear.

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