Victorian Taxidermy of The Great Auk

The Great Auk

The Great Auk

"The Last Stand" by Errol Fuller. A poignant reminder of man's folly.

Portrait of Henry Stacy-Marks with a Great Auk egg.

Stevens Sale Rooms, Covent Garden, c1934 from Errol Fuller's book on The Great Auk. A poignant reminder of man's folly.

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Great Auk and Labrador Duck.

The Earl of Derby's egg. One of the last remaining in the UK.

Great Auks, now extinct. Adult on the rock with egg and young placed in water below

Auks are a common group of marine birds comprising 22 species, and include guillemots and puffins. When submerged, they propel themselves with their wings, steering with the feet. The legs are near the tail, giving the birds an upright posture on land, like that of a penguin. Living auks weigh from 90 grams to 1 kg. The Great Auk weighed 5 kg.
The Icelanders called it "garefowl" (Anglicised spelling of geirfugl) meaning "spear-billed bird" while early navigators called it "penguin" either referring to its white head ("pen gwyn" is Welsh for white head) or "pen-winged" (referring to its pinioned wings) or simply because it was fat ("pinguis" in Latin). Auk comes from the Swedish "alka" and was used after the late 17th century. In French it is still called "grand pingouin" and in Spanish it is "pinguino grande" (both mean "big penguin").
Lot 334 Great Auk by Rowland Ward. The text is self explanatory. The bird was sold in 1970

Auks apparently originated near the Bering Sea, and presently occur in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans. The Great Auk inhabited temperate and subarctic waters (Northern Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland), moving further south in winter. Except during the breeding season, auks live in the open sea. The diet of auks consists principally of fish, but also includes many other types of marine organisms. Most auk species breed in large colonies, choosing coastal cliff ledges, crevices, and burrows for their nests. Males and females share the task of incubating the one or two eggs, a process which requires four to six weeks. Depending on the species, the chicks remain in the nest for a period of two to fifty days.

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Early example of Great Auk observed in it's natural habitat.

Early recollections of encounters with Great Auk

In April 1536, a gentleman named Hore outfitted a "voyage of discovery" with the blessing of King Henry VIII. Many years later, an account was published in Hakluyt's Voyages from the recollections of two expedition members, Oliver Daubeny ("merchant of London") and Thomas Butts ("son of Sir William Butts, knight"). Excerpt: The Voyage of Master Hore and divers other Gentlemen to Newfoundland, 1536 From the time of their setting out from Gravesend they were very long at sea, to wit, above two months, and never touched any land until they came to part of the West Indies about Cape Breton, shaping their course north-eastwards until they came to the island of Penguin, which is very full of rocks and stones, whereon they went and found it full of great fowls, white and grey, as big as geese, and they saw infinite numbers of their eggs. They drove a great number of the fowls into their boats upon their sails, and took up many of their eggs; the fowls they flayed and their skins were like honeycombs full of holes being flayed off. They dressed and ate them and found them to be very good and nourishing meat...
In 1583, a private expedition to claim new territory in North America for England was mounted by Sir Humphrey Gilbert. It was a complete disaster. After proclaiming Newfoundland as English territory, Gilbert was lost in a shipwreck, and the survivors returned home. Edward Hayes wrote an account that was later published in Hakluyt's Voyages. Excerpt: An account by Edward Hayes, gentleman, of the voyage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert to Newfoundland, 1583. We followed the [Newfoundland] coast to the south, with weather fair and clear. We had sight of an island named Penguin, of a fowl there breeding in abundance, almost incredible, which cannot fly, their wings not being able to carry their body, being very large (not much less than a goose) and exceeding fat, which the Frenchmen use to take without difficulty upon that island, and to barrel them up with salt.
The island also acquired the name Isla de Pitigoen (Penguin Island) and the auks were so numerous that a number of men could slaughter enough great auks to fill a boat within half an hour. There are reports from the early 16th century of 4 or 5 tonnes of great auks being salted in barrels. In Tudor times, Richard Hakluyt (a collector and editor of voyagers' tales) reported Funk Island to be "so exceedingly full of birds that one would think they had been stowed there... in less than half an houre we filled two boats full of them, as if they had been stones, so that besides them that we did eat fresh, every ship did powder and salt five or six barrels full of them".
From John James Audubon, 'The Birds of America' (first edition, 1827-38). The now extinct great auk was also known as the garefowl on St. Kilda. Seton describes how a visitor to the island in the summer of 1697 called the great auk "the stateliest as well as the largest of all the fowls in the island". He goes on to say the garefowl is "above the size of a solan goose, of a black colour, red about the eyes, a large white spot under each eye, a long broad bill; stands stately, his whole body erected; his wings short. He flyeth not at all; lays his egg upon the bare rock, which, if taken away, he lays no more for that year."
Early example of Great Auks. This is Audubons depiction as observed in their natural habitat.

The Great Auk is an extinct flightless bird that has become a symbol of destruction of the Earth and its life forms. The last authenticated sighting of this species was from Fire Island off the coast of Cape Reykjanes, Iceland, on June 3, 1844. At that time a pair of adult Great Auks were caught and killed by fishermen. The adults had laid an egg and were incubating. That was probably the last egg ever laid of this species. Great Auk specimens soon came to rest in major taxidermy collections and museums in Europe and North America. This was largely due to bequests of private taxidermy collections, integration of collections into one facility and purchases of collections from estates. it is a pityful testimony that, by comparison, only a handful of eggs and mounted specimens remain of a species, like the Passenger Pigeon, that once had significant numbers.
Ole Worm's Great Auk, complete with collar.
Most of the engraved illustrations in Museum Wormianum (Leiden, 1655) depict specimens from Ole Worm's private "Cabinet of Curiosities", the first natural history museum in Copenhagen. However this portrait of a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) depicts the seventeenth-century scientist's pet, and is the only known record of the bird's existence in captivity. The white ring around its neck is a collar: later copies of this print show it as plumage.
The Great Auk was the original 'Penguin'. When explorers discovered the 'Penguins' of the Southern Hemisphere, the name was transferred to the birds that appeared to be like the Great Auk and were found in the Southern Hemisphere. Penguin or Pin-wing or Pinquin or Pingwin - 'the fat one', attributed to Spanish and Portugese voyagers; 'Penguin', the name of a flightless sea bird, but so far as is known was first given, as in Hore's 'Voyage to Cape Breton', 1536.

Close up copy of a great Auk Egg.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries the Great auk had sufficient numbers to be used as a navigational tool for sailors on the Grand Banks. However, it may have had a limited distribution because of the scarcity of low-lying islands which were used as breeding grounds. One estimate puts Great Auk breeding pairs at 100,000 in just that specific area. By the late 1600s the Auk population was dramatically declining owing to commercial exploitation for feathers oil and meat.

Original Great Auk egg, now owned by a musuem in the UK.

Original Great Auk egg, now owned by a musuem in the UK.

The egg was at one time in the French Royal collections and is inscribed 'Pingouin', the French name for the great auk. The inscription was written by Monsieur Dufresne, keeper of the King's cabinet in Paris in the early nineteenth century. From 1847 to 1863 the egg was in the hands of a Monsieur J. Hardey of Dieppe, a ship-owner and noted ornithologist. Hardy bequeathed the egg to his son Michel who loaned it to the Dieppe museum. Michel's daughter, Madame Ussel of Eu, put the egg up for auction at Steven's Rooms in London in London on February 9 1909. With the financial support of Lord Strathcona, Mr Hay Fenton of Lombard Street London acquired the egg for 190 guineas (£199.50) and two days later presented it to the Natural History Department of Aberdeen University.

Mr Hay Fenton, the man who acquired the egg at Steven's Rooms in London on February 9 1909.

A 19th century auction catalogues shows the high prices paid once serious egg collecting began. In 1832, a great auk's egg fetched £15 15s 6d - almost twice the average annual income for a skilled worker (£9 10s). In 1894, an egg sold for £315; the average annual income was £83. In 1898 a great auk's skin together with an egg fetched £630 (equivalent to £50,000 today). In the early 1970s, the remains of a great auk were sold to an American collector for $30,000. In 1971, Iceland's Natural History Museum paid £9,000 for a mounted specimen auctioned at Sotheby's; the museum was prepared to pay up to £20,000.
In the 19th century, Symington Grieve commented "To most people interested in natural history, it would seem that much more interest attached to skins, skeletons, or individual bones of the bird rather than its eggs. The last teach little regarding the habits and structure of the bird compared with others. Yet the prices obtained for eggs are about as high as those obtained for skins, and quite out of all proportion higher than any price obtained for skeletons or bones." Great auk's eggs were status symbols and one major collector owned 9 such eggs. On his death, there was a rumour that his family planned to sell off the eggs, causing a short-lived, but panicky fluctuation in the highly specialised bird's egg market. To end speculation, the family had to publish an open letter in newspapers stating that they had no intention of selling the eggs.

Great Auk in the middle, Razorbil and Guillemott eggs by Graham Axon. This is give you an ideal of scale between the auk and its closet relatives.

Great Auk replica eggs by Graham Axon.

Breeding colonies were heavily exploited for meat, feathers, eggs and young. Crews on fishing ships would go ashore with clubs and drive the unresisting great auks onto the ships where they were clubbed to death on the ship's decks by the hundreds. At other times the birds were driven into the holds and used as a fresh food supply on long voyages. One fishing boat captain took 100,000 eggs in one day. The young were used as fish bait. After the collapse of eider duck populations due to habitat destruction and down harvesting, feather merchants turned to the great auk colonies, which further depleted their population.

Great Auk by Henry Shaw.

An entry in a ship's log in 1794 states: 'If you come for their feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the breast of his feathers; you turn the poor penguin adrift to perish at his leisure...' ' are in the constant practice of horrid cruelties, for you not only skin them alive, but you also burn them alive to cook their own bodies with.' Great auks once bred in Ireland, but by the 19th century the colonies were restricted to a few sub-arctic islands.. No more to say or add really, having read this. None survive today. It is undersootd that 81 mounted preserved skins (two are pictured above), 24 complete preserved skeletons, two collections of viscera and 75 eggs (one is pictured above) are all that are left of the millions of great auks that once roamed the North Atlantic.
Like razorbills, guillemots and other members of the auk family, great auks were foolishly faithful to their breeding colony, returning year after year regardless of the slaughter. It has been estimated that there were 100 000 pairs of great auks breeding on Funk Island. Whatever the number, their abundance must have been truly remarkable since the slaughter continued unabated for more than two centuries. Captain George Cartwright, who was among the first colonists in Labrador, had the foresight to see where all this was going. In July 1785, he watched boats coming ashore in Newfoundland laden with great auk carcasses from Funk Island and wrote: 'If a stop is not soon put to that practice, the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing, particularly the penguins: for this is now the only island they have left to breed upon.' His words went unheeded, as greed fuelled greed, precisely as it continues to do now with rhinos, tigers and whales. By 1800, Funk Island's great auks were no more.
Great Auk skeleton from the 1908 book by Richard Lydekker. This skeleton was prepared by Rowland Ward.

Cartwright was describing islands in the vicinity of St Lawrence and the authorities paid heed to what he said. Ten earlier, Newfoundland's governing council had petitioned the British parliament to stop the wholesale slaughter of seabirds. Magistrates at St John's had introduced harsh penalties, including flogging, for those caught killing birds for their feathers or eggs though it was still permissible to take birds for fish bait. It was hard to police and regulate these rule and easy to make false claims about what use birds were being put to. In 1793, Chief Justice Reeves convicted three men from Greenspond for taking great auk eggs from Funk Island during the closed season. In 1786, a proclamation was finally issued banning the slaughter of great auks on Funk Island. It was already too late; the massive industrialised culling had already driven the great auk to the edge of extinction on the island.
The piles of abandoned bodies, however, form the basis of what is now a small patch of soil on Funk Island, where another of the great auk's cousins, the puffin, digs its own breeding burrow each year. Paradoxically, as the puffins excavate, they expose the bones in what Frederick Lucas described in 1887 as a vast auk cemetery. Lucas was one of the many scientists who organised expeditions to Funk Island to collect the bones for which museums and collectors had been clamouring ever since they had realised that the auk was a rarity. But as the robbers of this vast grave discovered, not all the corpses decomposed. A few, protected under ice and soil, were effectively embalmed. And it was a 'dried, flattened, featherless and mummified' corpse delivered in 1863 to Richard Owen, the British anatomist and adversary of Darwin, that enabled him to provide the first detailed description of a great auk skeleton.

Lithograph image as draw on site of a Great Auk on St Kilda.

One of the most fascinating accounts came from Otto Fabricius, a Danish naturalist who was living on the west coast of Greenland in the late 18th century. He described in his journal what he maintained were great auk chicks on the sea during August. He even shot and dissected some to see what they had been eating. Fabricius, however, did not bring back a dead specimen to support his claims. Symington Grieve, the author of the definitive great auk monograph published in 1885, was convinced that Fabricius had wrongly identified his auk chicks. August, he argued, seemed rather late for such young chicks and west Greenland was much farther north than the known breeding locations.

A likely scenario is that people exploited great auks whenever and wherever they could, but for years the relative numbers meant that the impact was limited. The closest inshore breeding colonies would have been the first to be wiped out, gradually forcing the great auk into fewer, remote colonies. Climatological changes might not have helped but once exploitation started on a grand scale, extinction was inevitable. Ironically, the end came, not as a result of commercial exploitation but from science. When it was realised that great auks were becoming scarce, museums and private individuals became increasingly keen to add specimens to their collections before it was too late. The financial rewards for those prepared to take the risks were considerable.

The last recollection of this bird

Only 8 breeding locations are known. The largest, at Funk Island, was wiped out by the feather industry. There were at least three nesting islands off Newfoundland during the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as other islands off the tip of Nova Scotia and in Massachusetts Bay. There was a colony in the Magdalen Islands (Bird Rocks) in the Gulf of the St Lawrence River and great auks possibly also bred off Cape Breton as well. In addition to the Icelandic colonies at Eldey and Geirfuglasker (Auk Rocks), there were colonies at St Kilda, the Faeroes, Papa Westray in Orkney, and possibly one at the Calf of Man. There was also a colony on Penguin Island, off Cape La Hune on the south-west coast of Newfoundland. During the breeding season, the birds hunted relatively close to their colonies, ranging about 20 km.
Great auks seem to have deserted Bird Rocks soon after 1700; French navigator Jacques Cartier had captured several "apponatz" (great auks) there in 1534 during his expedition on behalf of the French king. They had gone from St Kilda by 1760. The last one killed in the Faeroes was in 1808, although there were reports of a few there until the 1840s. In the Faeroes, great auks were apparently rounded up at sea and driven ashore. The last pair on Papa Westray were killed in 1812. The war with Napoleon also affected the great auk population; in 1813, British blockades cut off supplies to Danish ports. The governor of the Faeroe Islands sent a gunboat to Iceland to obtain food; this included slaughtering great auks on Geirfuglasker. By 1860, the great auk was officially extinct.
Despite sailors' descriptions, the total population was probably not as huge as they believed. Even the largest colonies covered only modest areas of land. After breeding, the birds may have migrated both southward and northward with their young. Northward-bound migrating great auks were observed in August 1771 by George Cartwright as they moved in and out of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Great auks leaving the Iceland colonies in July may have travelled 20 km per day to reach Greenland by September. Dense breeding colonies and migrations of large numbers of birds may have given the illusion of a larger population than really existed.
Though the great auk was extensively killed for food and its eggs take, it was not until the birds came to the attention of the feather industry that they were headed for extinction. Around 1760, the supply of eider-down and feathers for feather beds was exhausted due to excessive hunting of breeding eider ducks and the destruction of their nesting grounds along the east coast of North America. The feather merchants sent out crews to the great auk nesting grounds and the birds were killed on an industrial scale. By 1810, Funk Island was the only west Atlantic 'rookery' left. The feather company crews returned each spring until they had killed every bird.
So abundant was the Great Auk that its territory spread all over the North Atlantic. Examples of the Great can be found in Spanish cave paintings and also carved into stone in Norway. They were the staple diet for nomadic tribes that inhabited the costal regions of the North Atlantic for over 10,000 years. Archaeological evidence found auk bones in graves sites and village communities demonstrating that this bird not only was a food source but also due the large amount of fat content they were used for heating and lighting. On June 4, 1844, three fishermen named Jon Brandsson, Sigurdr Islefsson and Ketil Ketilsson made a trip to the Icelandic island of Eldey. They had been hired by a collector named Carl Siemsen who wanted auk specimens. Jon Brandsson found an auk and killed it. Sigurdr Islefsson found another and did the same. Ketil Ketilsson had to return empty handed because his companions had just completed the extinction of the great auk.

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