Extinct in Ireland, September 10th, the Great Auk

For the first time in this September’s series on species extinct in Ireland, here is a species extinct not only in Ireland (or Irish waters) but the world. Again, from Whittled Away:

Once nesting in enormous colonies in Iceland and Newfoundland, these flightless birds were hunted to extinction globally. Gordon D’Arcy speculates that there may have been a breeding colony no the Keeragh Islands of the Wexford Coast, but definitive evidence is lacking. Their bones do, however, appear in abundance in middens. A live bird was brought ashore in Waterford in 1834 and nursed for a few weeks before dying. THe last two birds in Iceland were butchered in 1844. There was a plausible but unconfirmed report of two birds in Belfast Lough in 1845.

The Waterford auk is now in Trinity College. as outlined in the linked story on the possibility of genetic resurrection of this species. Incidentally on the  BiodiversityIreland data submitting app the Great Auk is (or was, not sure if it is the case in more recent versions) an option for spotting on the list of bird species.


From Smithsonian Magazine:

In June of 1840, three sailors hailing from the Scottish island of St. Kilda landed on the craggy ledges of a nearby seastack, known as Stac-an-Armin. As they climbed up the rock, they spotted a peculiar bird that stood head and shoulders above the puffins and gulls and other seabirds.

The scruffy animal’s proportions were bizarre—just under three feet tall with awkward and small wings that rendered it flightless, and a hooked beak that was almost as large as its head. Its black and white plumage had earned it the title the “original penguin,” but it looked more like a Dr. Seuss cartoon.

The sailors watched as the bird, a Great Auk, waddled clumsily along. Agile in the water, the unusual creature was defenseless against humans on land, and its ineptitude made it an easy target “Prophet-like that lone one stood,” one of the men later said of the encounter.

Perhaps the men enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, or perhaps they realized its meat and feathers were incredibly valuable. In any case, they abducted the bird, tying its legs together and taking it back to their ship. For three days, the sailors kept the Great Auk alive, but on the fourth, during a terrible storm, the sailors grew fearful and superstitious. Condemning it as “a maelstrom-conjuring witch,” they stoned it to death.

It was the last of its kind to ever be seen on the British Isles. Four years later, the Great Auk vanished from the world entirely when fishermen hunted down the last pair on the shores of Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. The men spotted the mates in the distance and attacked, catching and killing the birds as they fled for safety. The female had been incubating an egg, but in the race to catch the adults, one of the fishermen crushed it with his boot, stamping out the species for good.


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