In Praise of the Great Auk
The last Great Auk in Britain was executed as a witch, or so the story goes. Perhaps executed is not quite fair – there was no trial. Merely a group of sailors who decided that the auk was responsible for the storms they’d encountered, and took it upon themselves to beat it to death with sticks.
The auk hadn’t asked to sail with them. They’d found it on a small island off Scotland, tied its legs with rope, and brought it along. History (personified by Ralph Whitlock in his Rare and Vanished Birds of Great Britain) does not record whether they planned to sell it or eat it or just wanted it for novelty value on a dull trip. Whatever it was, when the wind got bad they decided it wasn’t worth it.
They could have thrown it back to the sea. Whitlock might then have let them off with a footnote. But if the Great Auk has a supernatural power, it involves not storms but symbolism. A human who encounters a Great Auk risks being transformed, Circe-style, into an object lesson on humanity’s heedless destruction of our fellow creatures. Like all magic powers, it has a price. The auk too gets trapped in the lesson. The last British Great Auk probably didn’t want to be a cautionary tale anywhere near as much as it wanted some fish and not to be hit with sticks.
So let us praise the Great Auk not for what it symbolizes, but for what it really was.
The last survivor of its genus, Pinguinus impennis, ranged from Newfoundland to the Orkneys, yet remained elusive. Though in prehistoric times it sometimes made its way to Florida and southern Spain, it was mostly associated with cold northern waters and small rocky islands so remote that they harbored no land predators. Flightless, vulnerable, and slightly goofy on land, it was elegant and efficient in the water – much like the southern-hemisphere birds that inherited one of its many names, penguin. It thrived in large congregations, but even at its most populous, most humans would rarely or never have the opportunity to see one.
Let us praise the beak of the Great Auk. It was a fine piece of nature, that beak. This should never be underestimated – from the flamingo to the crossbill to the Galapagos finches, the beak can make a bird’s reputation. 40 mm deep and described in the literature with such loving terms as “ugly” and “grotesque”, the Great Auk’s beak had anywhere from three to a dozen grooves running down the mandible. These grooves may or may not have have turned white during the breeding season. Helpful curators have painted the grooves on many existing museum specimens, so the truth may never be known.
Let us praise the Auk’s more subtle charms, too. Those who looked at the living birds (and weren’t distracted by signs of witchcraft or the prospect of a meal) have passed down to us the knowledge that the Auk had chestnut eyes and light bluish-gray nictating membranes. They tell us that the feathers of its neck and head shaded from pure black to dark chocolate brown and that the feathers of its distinctive white facial patch were velvety in texture. These are the things we would praise even if the Great Auk was merely an uncommon bird and not a tragedy. We would praise the long subtle lilac-gray feathers that sometimes appeared on its flanks among the white – maybe the more so, since we’d probably know by now what they were for, whether they were breeding plumage or a mark of sex or maturity or something else entirely. We would praise the vivid color of its gape, whether that color was really red, as some records claim, or yellow-orange.
We would praise the noise and life of the breeding colonies (although perhaps not the smell.) We would praise the cunning adaptations we’d have no doubt discovered in it by now, for diving and fish-catching or for protecting its young from gulls or for finding its way across the sea to the right little speck of salt-sprayed, guano-crusted rock. We would praise the things that were still mysteries, and without regret, because at least we would have hope of solving them.
We’d probably never think about what life would be like without them, but we would marvel at these big lovely birds nevertheless.
This post was written by Carrie Laben. Carrie lives, writes, and birds in Brooklyn, and can be visited online at pinguinus.livejournal.com. She would dearly like a time machine, not just for auks but for Labrador Ducks as well. – Mike