The End of the last of the Great Auks in Eldey

3 June 1844, 170 years ago on Eldey, a small island off Iceland, the last breeding pair of Great Auks was strangled by Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson, their last egg trampled by Ketill Ketilson and their skins sold to a Danish collector.

“Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer and Finbad the Failer and Binbad the Bailer and Pinbad the Pailer and Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer and Linbad the Yailer and Xinbad the Phthailer.When?Going to dark bed there was a square round Sinbad the Sailor roc's auk's egg in the night of the bed of all the auks of the rocs of Darkinbad the BrightdaylerWhere?“ (James Joyce “Ulysses”)

 Dutch bird illustrator Johannes Gerardus Keulemans’ impression
 of a Great Auk in in summer and winter plumage (around 1910)

When the men sailing with Magellan and Vasco da Gama first encountered fat flightless birds at the Cape of Good Hope, black-and-white with a waddling gait, they allegedly called them penguins, from the Welsh word for head, “pen” and “gwyn”, white, whiteheads, a name that was originally used for another species from the Northern Hemisphere that looked vaguely like a penguin, the Great Auk. The relation between the species beyond their appearance is vague, at best, though, as large as a king penguin, about 30’’ tall and weighing around 5 lbs as they were. But once upon a time, Great Auks were far better known on both sides of the broad Atlantic than penguins are today, serving as a food source already for the Neanderthals 100.000 years ago, a tradition continued by Native Americans, Inuit and the Norse alike and since at least the 8th century CE, the millions of Great Auks nesting on the few rocky islands with sloping shorelines during breeding season were hunted in earnest for their meat, eggs, their down feathers and their fat bones as fuel in treeless regions.

John James Audubon (1785 - 1851): "Great Auks" from "The Birds of America" (1838)

In the end, they suffered the same fate as other beasts largely immobile on land and living in large colonies during breeding time when the Age of Sail dawned upon the Seven Seas. Sailors slaughtered them in their thousands and when even the remotest spots on god forsaken shores developed a colony of settlers at least in the vicinity, the populations of Great Auks began to dwindle rapidly. First official warnings regarding their continued existence as a species were filed as early as the 1750s and Great Auks became the subject of some of the first laws for the protection of nature. But it was too late already. Ironically enough, the last breeding pairs were mostly killed to provide specimens for the naturalists to study the breed of large northern penguins that was about to go extinct. The last Great Auks’ remains are swimming for the last 150 years in a glass jar filled with formaldehyde in the National Museum of Copenhagen and few extinct species’ remains are as numerous as that of the Great Auk and caused probably more literary and artistic references than the Dodo, from James Joyce to Stravinsky.

The last Great Auks’ remains are swimming for the last 150 years in a glass jar filled with formaldehyde in the National Museum of Copenhagen

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