The Great Auks Extinction

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"The Great Auks Extinction"
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Extinctions happen all the time. They are happening at this very moment. Most of these are caused by a natural source, by that I mean without human intervention. There are some extinctions that are indeed caused by man. One of these extinctions in 1844 was absolutely caused by mans' existence.

This poor bird was not only saddled with an awful name but he wasn't that attractive either. The Auk was about 3 feet tall and weighed maybe 11 pounds. The Auk greatly resembled a penguin. He had black feathers on his back and white feathers on its' chest, again looking like a waiter. The wing feathers were only a few inches long, hence the Auk could not fly. However the Great Auk did have webbed toes, again like penguins, and they were able to swim like fish. They were considered penguins and their scientific name is Pinguinus impennis.

The Great Auk was distributed across the north Atlantic from northern Scotland to the Canadian East Coast of Newfoundland. The greater populations were however between Iceland and Newfoundland and the various islands in between. There have been bones found as far south as Florida so scientists suggest that the Auk may have migrated that far south.

Native peoples on the Island of Newfoundland would harvest the birds and take only enough for survival. These were the Beothuk peoples and like native peoples elsewhere learned how to harvest animals that would ensure future growth of the species. The decline of the Great Auk came at the hands of the white man. Yes, those western Europeans did it once again. From the time of Columbus and the first Catholic priests (they killed, injured or committed genocide on whole groups of native peoples through either cruelty and murder or disease) to the mid-1800's and the demise of the Auk extinction was a curse brought to the new world by Europeans.

"Greed is good." was the constant refrain by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street. Well, maybe within that scenario but not in the rest of the world. It was mans' sheer greed that caused the extinction of the Auk. Sailors would stop by the various islands inhabited by the birds for BBQs' on the beach. They would kill the animals and cook them on the spot. Other times they would have herded the birds on to their ships and into the hold so that they could have fresh meat while on the road.

Later it became fashionable for Europeans of some wealth to want to collect the Great Auk eggs. These eggs would cost a good amount of money and people felt superior and wanted more. Other people would collect the skins of the bird and the skeletons of the birds. In the collections of some people were found single bones from the Auk. Oil was also a sought after commodity from the fat of the bird.

The last pair of Great Auks was found on the isle of Eldey incubating and egg. They were killed and the egg was taken and that was the quiet end of this bird, The Great Auk.


McGill University

Nature Canada

Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation

The University and Aberdeen


Britannica online encyclopedia

The Canadian Encyclopedia

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