An Aukward End
How European sailors, in the search for New World cod, ate the great auk to extinction.
For Cod and Country
It’s some time in the early 16th century, and you’ve just arrived off the coast of Newfoundland after a long transatlantic journey from Bristol, England. You’re tired and you’re hungry, and - if you’re anything like me - you’re sick of the company of straight men. Provisions are running low and home comforts are a distant memory. But you’ve made it, and for that you thank God.
You’ve made this trip across the ocean, along with crews from France, Portugal, Spain, and the Basque Country, to exploit the rich fishing grounds off the coast. Fishing grounds that are so rich with Atlantic cod, they’re said to be ‘swarming with fish’. In fact, sailors have reported that cod are so numerous here you don’t even need a net to catch them; you can simply lower baskets into the sea and haul up your bounty.
In 1610, this fertile area will become England’s first overseas colony. So important were these waters that historian Lizzie Collingham has gone as far to say that ‘the British Empire was born on Newfoundland’s stony beaches.’
But you don’t care about that. Like any normal human, the first thing on your mind after a long trip is food - preferably some fresh meat. And you’re in luck, because bird is on the menu, and it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet.
What is (was) the great auk?
Great auks were big birds, growing to a height of around two and a half feet. They spent the majority of their lives in the water and were adept swimmers, though on land their stubby little wings looked comical as they waddled around, not dissimilar to a penguin. Being unable to fly, they were also the only flightless seabird native to the Northern Hemisphere.
At one time, great auks could be found on both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, to Britain and Scandinavia, where they probably numbered in their millions. Along with the Arctic North, their bones have been found as far south as Spain, Italy, Gibraltar, and Florida.
Not surprising, then, that humans had long exploited these birds as a food source. One of the oldest records we have is from a 4000 year old burial site in Newfoundland containing around 200 great auk beaks. A butchered great auk wing even turned up in a Roman site on the Isle of Portland in the English Channel. But by the time European sailors arrived in Newfoundland in the 1500s, the breeding range of the great auk was limited to Funk Island, Newfoundland (the largest colony); the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada; Grimsey Island and Eldey Island, Iceland; and St. Kilda Island, Scotland. For most new arrivals then, the bird was likely an unusual sight.
For sailors who had just arrived and had a hankering for something other than rations, the great auk was a mouthwatering opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. A 1534 account by French explorer, Jacques Cartier, recounted, ‘these birds are so fat it is marvellous. In less than half an hour we filled two boats full of them… every ship did powder and salt five or six barrels full of them.’ They were even a great alternative ‘in lieu of salted pork.’
The fact that great auks were relatively unafraid of humans also made them easy pickings. A British account from a few years later gave reports of men driving a ‘great number of the foules’ into their ships where they feasted on the ‘very good and nourishing meat’. Decades later in 1622, Captain Richard Whitbourne wrote of harvesting auks ‘hundreds at a time as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admirable instruments for the sustenation of Man.’
It wasn’t being eaten alone that drove these birds to extinction. Over the next few decades, auks were used as fish bait, for their feathers, and as fuel - their bodies being so oily they could be used to start fires.
It was particularly their use in the down industry that propelled them to extinction. Europeans had exhausted their supply of eider duck feathers due to overhunting (no surprises there) and turned their attention on the great auk. In 1760, feather companies began sending crews to Funk Island, where the birds were harvested most springs.
Accounts of the feather harvesting are particularly grim. One English seaman, Aaron Thomas, who arrived on the HMS Boston, wrote, ‘If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.’ (Auks were often called penguins and vice versa.) Another man, named Joseph Bartlett, said that his father, who died in 1871, ‘built enclosures, lit fires, and burnt the birds to death for pure mischief.’
By 1810, after over-exploitation, every last bird on Funk Island had been killed.
A few decades later in 1840, on the Scottish island of St Kilda, three men came across an unusual bird which they tied up and took back to their ship. On the fourth day of keeping it captive, there was great storm. Not recognising the bird and being heavily superstitious, the sailors blamed the weather on the ‘maelstrom-conjuring witch’ and stoned the last Scottish great auk to death. Only a mere four years later, the last known pair of auks were killed on the Icelandic island of Eldey, after men caught and killed the mates as they fled to safety, cracking an egg in the process.
The great auk is a sad example of humans over-exploiting an animal for its meat, feathers, and fat. It’s an old example, but it’s not unfamiliar today.
Of Great Historical Impauktance
What’s interesting about the great auk is its importance in history - an importance that’s often overlooked. While the dodo is now the poster-bird for animal extinction, during the 19th and 20th centuries the great auk was the ‘most widely known (and most-lamented) extinct bird.’ As one author points out, ‘it is no exaggeration to say that the destruction of the great auk was the catalyst for the enactment... of some of the first modern laws for the protection of birds.’
It’s extinction was driven by European expansion into New World fishing grounds - fishing grounds that 500 years later would be so over-exploited that northern cod populations would collapse, pushed to the brink of extinction. Sadly, the auk wasn’t as lucky as the cod, it’s numbers never having the opportunity to recover.
The great auk was an important food source for Europeans, particularly the English, who grew wealthy on the money made from the Newfoundland fish trade. Yet the bird is rarely, if ever, given recognition as a food which helped feed the beginnings of the British Empire, an empire that was founded on its search for food and commodities.
The story of the great auk isn’t an isolated one, nor unrecognisable to us today. It’s important we remember that most extinct animals don’t go the way of the dodo; most are forgotten to the past.