Tom the water-baby meeting the last of the great auks or garefowl – an exquisite painting by Warwick Goble for an illustrated 1909 edition of Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, which is one of my all-time favourite children's novels (public domain)
And there he saw the last of the Gairfowl, standing up on the Allalonestone, all alone. And a very grand old lady she was, full three feet high, and bolt upright, like some old Highland chieftainess. She had on a black velvet gown, and a white pinner and apron, and a very high bridge to her nose (which is a sure mark of high breeding), and a large pair of white spectacles on it, which made her look rather odd: but it was the ancient fashion of her house.
Charles Kingsley – The Water-Babies: A Fairy-Tale For a Land-Baby
As fondly commemorated above in Charles Kingsley's classic children's novel The Water-Babies: A Fairy-Tale For a Land-Baby (1863), one of the most famous extinct species of modern-day bird is the great auk Pinguinus impennis, also known as the garefowl, gairfowl, or geirfugl. Almost 3 ft tall (the only taller auk was the prehistoric Howard's Lucas auk Miomancalla howardi), this sturdy flightless black-and-white seabird from the northern hemisphere was superficially reminiscent of the southern hemisphere’s familiar penguins, but its link with them does not end there – because the great auk was the original penguin, the latter name having been initially bestowed upon this puffin-allied species. Only later was it applied by those European sailors first penetrating Antarctic waters to the wholly-unrelated birds that they encountered there and which retain it today, long after the original northern penguin’s extermination.
The great auk once existed in tens of millions, nesting on the rocky coastal areas of islands on both sides of the North Atlantic, but it was in America that it first met its end. Its feathers were prized for use in eider-downs and feather beds, its flesh was tasty and therefore much sought-after by sailing vessels, and collectors coveted its eggs, and so this imposing but helpless bird was massacred in countless numbers. On Funk Island off Newfoundland, for example, its precious nesting grounds were frequently raided and mercilessly desecrated. Thousands of auks were captured alive and cooped together in great enclosures like domestic fowl until it was their time to be slaughtered en masse by being clubbed to death and then thrown into furnaces, enabling their feathers to be more readily removed from their bodies. By the second decade of the 19th Century, the great auk was merely a memory in North America.
In Europe, its major stronghold was the Icelandic coast, but great auks even existed around the more northerly islands of Scotland, most notably St Kilda but also visiting the Orkneys, with one particularly famous Orcadian pair being nicknamed the King and Queen. Sadly, however, they were no safer from hunting here than they had been in the New World. Moreover, it was especially ironic that as this species became rarer, it became ever more persecuted by museum collectors - anxious to add specimens and eggs to their collections before it died out! The last known pair of great auks constituted a couple that were clubbed to death (and their egg smashed) on the Icelandic island of Eldey on 3 June 1844, since when the species has long been deemed extinct (but see below). A particularly moving novel reconstructing this terrible, shameful event, entitled The Last Great Auk and first published in 1964, was written by Allan Eckert, and was reviewed by me here in an earlier ShukerNature post.
The Last Great Auk by Allan Eckert – Collins hardback 1st edition, 1964 (© Allan Eckert/HarperCollins, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
For some decades thereafter, however, various quite convincing reports of lone living specimens emerged from various remote far-northern European localities, and it is with these little-mentioned, 'post-extinction' reports of great auks that this present ShukerNature article is concerned.
Perhaps the most (in)famous of these is also the most recent one. On 19 April 1986, London’s Daily Telegraph carried the remarkable news that an expedition was to set sail for Papa Westray, a tiny islet in Scotland’s Orkney group, in response to reputed sightings of a living great auk there. Unhappily for cryptozoology as well as for mainstream zoology, however, it proved to be more of a canard than an auk! For as documented in the International Society of Cryptozoology's ISC Newsletter for spring 1987, it turned out to be nothing more than an imaginative advertising promotion for a certain brand of whisky, using a robotic auk!
This is not the first false alarm for this long-lost species. Reports of great auks in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway's northwestern coast, emerged every so often during the late 1930s. When finally investigated, however, the birds proved to be genuine penguins – namely, nine king penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus, which had been brought from sub-Antarctica as pets by whalers and had been released on the Lofotens in August 1936 when no longer wanted. The last two died there in 1944.
Nevertheless there are a number of more promising reports of post-1844 survival too. Indeed, a sighting of a single living specimen on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in December 1852, made by eminent field naturalist and ornithologist Colonel Henry Maurice Drummond-Hay with the aid of binoculars, and at a distance of only 30 yards or so away while he was traveling aboard a steamer, has lately been formally accepted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). It was first brought to mainstream attention in 1979 by T.R. Halliday in a paper on the great auk published by the periodical Oceans. Moreover, in 1853 a dead great auk was supposedly found on the shore of Trinity Bay on Newfoundland's eastern side, and three years later another one was reputedly caught on its western shore, but neither specimen was submitted to scientists for confirmation (or otherwise).
Most of the others report, conversely, are buried in Norwegian journals and newspapers of the 1800s, but a good example from a 19th-Century English publication was contained in Dr Isaac J. Hayes’s The Land of Desolation (1871), which describes his adventures in Greenland during summer 1869. The auk-related account concerns a conversation that Hayes had with a naturalist called Hansen:
The great auk, long since supposed to be entirely extinct, he told me had been recently seen on one of the Whale-fish Islands. Two years before [in 1867] one had been actually captured by a native, who, being very hungry, and wholly ignorant of the great value of the prize he had secured, proceeded at once to eat it, much to the disgust of Mr. Hansen, who did not learn of it until too late to come to the rescue. How little the poor savage thought of the great fortune he had just missed by hastily indulging his appetite!
On 10 November 2004, Dr Alan Gauld of Nottingham, England, kindly brought to my attention the following account. Published in the autumn 1929 issue of Bird Notes and News, it was reported by H.A.A. Dombrain, a manager for an English concern in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Dombrain noted that one of his boatmen, a Finn called Jodas, who was an experienced hunter and amateur naturalist, had told him that earlier that day (presumably the same day that Gauld wrote his account to Bird Notes and News) he and Dombrain’s shipwright, a man called Evenson, had seen a bird under the wharf that, in spite of their experience, they were wholly unable to identify.
Intrigued, Dombrain showed them separately a series of bird illustrations, including all of the likely (and unlikely) species that it could be. To his great surprise, both of them, independently of each other, selected an image of the great auk as the species that matched their mystery bird.
Prior to its extinction almost a century earlier, the great auk had indeed inhabited the wild, sparsely-inhabited coasts of these islands. Moreover, the earlier-noted release there of sub-Antarctic king penguins was several years after the sighting of Evenson, so these birds could not explain it. Consequently, is it possible that he had truly seen a lone, elusive great auk from some small colony that had somehow persisted beyond their species’ official extinction date in this remote locality?
Equally enigmatic is the taxonomic identity of the mysterious Arran auk – the name given by the elderly pilot of a boat carrying the Reverend G.C. Green around Scotland's western coast to a strange seabird as large as a goose or turkey and with a large sharp beak, but with such short wings that it never flew, only paddled, and was black in colour dorsally, white ventrally. As the Rev. Green noted in an article by him that was published on 27 March 1880 in The Field magazine, when he showed the pilot an illustrated book of birds the latter readily identified the picture of a great auk as portraying the Arran auk. He also stated that it only appeared on the coast of western Scotland's Isle of Arran in March each year, that he had shot three specimens, and that he would obtain one for Green the following March.
Tragically, however, the pilot, who was an old man, passed away not long after taking Green in the boat, but his sons vowed that they would obtain a specimen of this bird in his stead. Sure enough, they did subsequently present Green with what they claimed to be an Arran auk, but it proved to be merely a great northern diver Gavia immer (aka the common loon in North America). However, Green pointed out that their father the pilot had readily distinguished between divers and the Arran auk when talking with him during their boat journey, so Green suspected that if he had been alive the pilot would not have sent him a diver.
A few additional cases of putative post-1844 survival for the great auk can be found within a short chapter entitled ‘Late Records, Anomalous Sightings and Cryptozoology’ in Errol Fuller’s definitive book The Great Auk (1999).
Errol Fuller's authoritative tome The Great Auk (© Errol Fuller – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
For example, he notes that in 1971 the famous English nature-writer and broadcaster J. Wentworth Day recalled how back in 1927 he was informed by an acquaintance from his youth named Edward Valpy, whom he deemed to be a first-rate naturalist and explorer of unimpeachable truth, that while spending some time on one of the Lofotens he had spied a great auk slipping off a rock near the local boat-builder's yard and quay. Day also stated that when Valpy had informed the boat-builder of what he had seen, the builder confirmed that it had been around for some time, that his sons had often seen it, and that once it had even dived beneath the boat on which he had been sailing. Note again that this was several years before the king penguins had been released here, so they cannot explain this report of multiple sightings.
Also of interest is the much-disputed claim by a Norwegian named Brodtkorb that he had shot a great auk, one of four supposedly encountered by him one day in April 1848 while he was rowing with some companions in a little strait constituting an arm of the sea separating Vardö from the islets of Hornö and Renö in Norway. The four birds were paddling in the water, and continued to do so, not flying away, even after he had shot one of them. As far as he could remember, its back, head, and neck were all completely black, except for a white spot at the eye on the side of the neck. Its wings were extremely small, and in shape it resembled those familiar auks the razorbills and guillemots.
Sadly, Brodtkorb threw the dead bird's carcase on the beach when he landed, then later regretted doing so, but when he returned to the beach the following day to retrieve it, it had gone, carried away by the tide. Brodtkorb's mystery bird has since been discounted by various sceptical naturalists as having merely been a diver or some familiar auk species, but those who knew him personally vouched for his knowledge of wildlife, stating that if this is really all that it had been, as an experienced sportsman he would have readily recognised it as such.
Problematically, as Errol pointed out in his book, Vardö is much further north than any currently-known locality for great auk occurrence in historical times, but its remains in prehistoric middens from this region confirm that in earlier ages it did indeed occur there. Errol's book also contains other post-1844 claimed sightings of this species in Norwegian and Greenland localities further north than would be expected, based at least upon its confirmed historical distribution and irrespective of the sightings' dates.
Might it just be possible, however, that in such far-north localities, out of the ready reach of hunters, some few great auks did indeed survive beyond, possibly even well beyond, their species' official extinction dates (1844/1852) – and might some even be lingering there today?
It would be a very bold person indeed to state with any degree of confidence that the great auk is not a lost auk after all. Then again, it would be a very bold person indeed to attempt spending the extensive period of time that would be required to seek with any degree of proficiency this iconic bird in such inhospitable, inaccessible Arctic terrain. So who can truly say for certain?
Finally: Here is my two-page review of Errol's superb great auk book that was published in the autumn 2000 issue (#21) of the late Mark Chorvinsky's Strange Magazine (please click its pages to enlarge for reading purposes):
And here is a scraperboard illustration – the very first scraperboard picture that I ever attempted – of a great auk that I prepared more than 30 years ago, its black and white plumage making it an ideal subject to depict via this very striking medium: