Happy Great Auk Day

[Apologies to Adam for bigfooting. I’m between events and wanted to get this posted today, and at a time when I could participate in comments. – Hillary]

Happy Great Auk Day, Juicers. Can we have just one day a year when we remember the many incredible species that our own has driven from existence? I propose today, July 3, because while every extinction story is tragic, none, in my mind, surpasses that of the great auk for sheer pointlessness, ignorance, and brutality. But more on that in a moment.

"Specimen no. 3 in Brussels, which could be one of the two last birds killed on Eldey in 1844" - Wikipedia

“Specimen no. 3 in Brussels, which could be one of the two last birds killed on Eldey in 1844” – Wikipedia

The great auks suffered mightily at our hands, even by extinct-animal standards. As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction, they numbered in the millions and could be found throughout the North Atlantic. Unfortunately, they were prized for their meat, feathers, and oil; and also had no natural fear of humans, so could be slaughtered with ridiculous ease and in ridiculous numbers. She quotes one explorer who boasted that, “In less than half an hour we filled two boats full of them.”

And then there’s this recollection from an English seaman: “You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin [Great Auk] or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodys being oily soon to produce a flame.”

The end is recorded:

The last colony of great auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the “Great Auk Rock”) off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey, which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony. The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on 3 July 1844, on request from a merchant who wanted specimens, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.

Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Ísleifsson described the act as follows: “The rocks were covered with blackbirds…they walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but [mine] was going to the edge of the cliff. It walked like a man … but moved its feet quickly. [I] caught it close to the edge – a precipice many fathoms deep. Its wings lay close to the sides – not hanging out. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”

As I said, uniquely pointless, ignorant, and brutal – and so, also, just bottomlessly sad.

Wikipedia lists dozens of other Holocene extinctions, including:

4866 BCE – Irish Elk
1627 CE – Auroch (Europe’s native ox)
1662 – Dodo
1768 – Stellars Sea Cow
1883 – Quagga
1889 – Hokkaido wolf (deliberately poisoned)
1914 – Passenger Pigeon (great recent New Yorker piece on this one)
1918 – Caroline Parakeet
2006 – Baiji dolphin (Yangtze River)
2011 – Western Black Rhinoceros

So much tragedy—and so much more to come, as many scientists predict massive extinctions due to climate change. (See Kolbert’s excellent book.)

July 3 is somewhat inconvenient for us Americans, coming right before our big national holiday. And perhaps the extermination of one species is no more significant than that of any other. But extinction is a global problem, and (to me and at least some others) there really does seem something uniquely tragic about the fate of the great auk; and so I nominate it as a stand-in for all the others. So: July 3.

How about you, Juicers? Would you pick the great auk or another species or event to symbolize the extinction problem? And perhaps the scientific among us can weigh in on the possibility of resurrecting lost species, Jurassic Park style.

As you go through your day, I would be grateful if you would give some thought to the great auk and other amazing ones who lived rich lives and had rich heritages, only to be wiped out by us, the supposed sapiens.

54 replies
  1. 1
    Hillary Rettig says:

    I have been thinking about this piece for months – ever since I read Kolbert’s book – and look forward to your comments. I’ll be here for 20 minutes, and will definitely check back in again later tonight. thx

  2. 2
    Baud says:

    Weren’t mammoths hunted to extinction during the ice age?

    Would you pick the great auk or another species or event to symbolize the extinction problem?

    I’d pick us.

  3. 3
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Baud: for sure, they’re on the Holocene list. there are dozens of species listed, and probably should be thousands.

    >I’d pick us.

    yeah, an unfortunately very astute point. ::sigh::

    ps – don’t think your comment this morning about having to look elsewhere for a misanthropic blog wasn’t on my mind when I posted this. i guess you don’t have to look anywhere else now. :-(

  4. 4
    Guam guy says:

    Here on Guam, Every Indigenous bird species is extinct or only surviving in captivity. Sad.

  5. 5
    Dmbeaster says:

    The great extinction goes back into human prehistory for 50,000 years, including the elimination of large fauna from Australia 45,000 years ago, the extinction of large fauna from North America starting 15,000 years ago, and the last mammoths of Wrangel Island around 4,500 years ago. It is not a recent phenomena, but a characteristic of human impact since they evolved. Another likely victim have been all of the other hominids that co-existed as humans emerged but disappeared as humans spread.

  6. 6
    Adam L Silverman says:


    The 19:20 to 19:30 mark is relevant to this post, though the whole video is hysterical!

    Just so everyone knows, Murray has regularly taken on Nigel Farage. Despite the gimmick he uses in his stand up, he’s one of the good guys.

  7. 7
    redshirt says:

    We are the Destroyers. We’ve come to ravage this planet.

  8. 8
    Mark k says:

    this is a bad day for it, because a majority of non-city folk, and a lot of city folk, hear nothing but fireworks and explosions all through the 3rd, and even worse/longer if it’s a weekend that year. we’re always constantly startled by what at first sounds like gun shots, and, I know a lot that do go shooting because of the 4th.

    really inopportune time to try to honor and celebrate the Not Killing of things and support less killing and such…

    June 3, August 3, Jan 3, any other third would be better in my opinion…..

  9. 9
    SteveinSC says:

    Well, this is horrible and a testament to the cancer on the body of the planet which is human kind. But as some mitigation in guilt, I do not believe the Carolina Parakeet was hunted to extinction. There were hundreds of thousands across the entire Southeast from Missouri to Florida and into Central America I suppose. There are primordial swamps here in SC that have never been lived in, farmed or logged. I think more likely the gregarious birds were struck down by a disease endemic to them. But who knows.

  10. 10
    Barney says:

    I think the amazing bit is that one of the last great auks was killed in 1844 because men, trapped with it in a hut in a storm on St. Kilda, Scotland, thought it was a witch, causing the storm. In 1844.

  11. 11
    Achrachno says:

    The name of the bird in the 1918 extinction is messed up a bit: Carolina parakeet is it.

    The auroch is extinct in the wild, but was domesticated and is the ancestor/wild source of our domestic cattle (at least some of them). So, would feral cattle count as a sort of auroch? With that, I’m thinking about longhorn — feral cattle that were loose in TX for a couple of hundred years, but are now just maintained as domesticated curiosities.

    Thinking about other things: Ivory-billed woodpecker is almost certainly gone too, despite recent uncorroborated reports in the US and reports and rumors in Cuba. Its close relative, the Imperial Ivory-billed woodpecker of Mexico, is apparently now extinct too. I think about those two because they were remarkable creatures that were lost to the destruction of the old-growth forests that they required. Other creatures doubtless went with them.

    One could go on, but it’s discouraging.

  12. 12
    Patricia Kayden says:

    @redshirt: Kind of like the aliens from the Predator movies.

  13. 13
    redshirt says:

    @Patricia Kayden: They were just sport hunting. More like the aliens from Independence Day.

  14. 14
    gindy51 says:

    We are earth’s MRSA.

  15. 15
    Patricia Kayden says:

    @Adam L Silverman: He’s pretty funny although his accent is pretty strong.

  16. 16


    Weren’t mammoths hunted to extinction during the ice age?

    We know they were hunted, but there’s not the same kind of clear-cut evidence they were hunted to extinction that there is for species that were hunted to extinction within historical time.

  17. 17
    Doug R says:

    Looking at that New Yorker piece, I’m struck by how much the passenger pigeon resembled us.

  18. 18
    jharp says:

    There’s also Blue Pike that were once plentiful in Lake Erie.


    Not enough time for me to google it now.

    And I gotta mention the emerald ash borer is killing all of the ash trees in central Indiana.

  19. 19
    Origuy says:

    It’s not clear that the Irish elk were hunted to extinction by humans. Changing climate after the end of the Ice Age led to environmental stress for a lot of species. The traditional explanation for the extinction of the Irish elk was that the change of grasslands to thick forest caused their massive antlers to be unwieldy. That’s unlikely to be the only factor, though.

    I’d add the Tasmanian marsupial wolf to that list, as well as a lot of insular birds killed by cats and rats brought by humans.

  20. 20
    hellslittlestangel says:

    Happy Great Auk Day?

  21. 21
    PurpleGirl says:

    My extinction interest is coral reef and related to that the great Pacific (plastic) garbage patch. Coral is under very great pressure from mining for bead making and other objects and from climate change which is raising the temperature of the oceans. When you see white coral that means it’s dead and bleached. Living coral takes on the shine/color of the fish and water that surrounds it.

    I took part in the Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef Project — I contributed some 30-odd pieces to the Project. Coral should be multi-colored. The seas need to be cool to cold for coral to grow and be healthy. Coral provides nooks and crevices for small fish to hide in and be protected.

    The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean that can be seen clearly from space – it’s that big. It’s made up of plastic bags, plastic soda ring holders, all kinds of other stuff that floats and gets joined to the whole patch.

    For more information on Coral Reef and the Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef see The Institute for Figuring (theiff). The Institute For Figuring is an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering.

  22. 22

    I would pick the Yangtze River dolphin. An intelligent species, rendered deaf, dumb, and blind and poisoned by industry.

  23. 23
    maya says:

    @Guam guy:

    Here on Guam, Every Indigenous bird species is extinct or only surviving in captivity. Sad.

    Don’t you have a brown tree snake problem which has led to the bird decline?

    An old remedy that probably didn’t work well.

  24. 24
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    How do we deal (morally, ethically) with the near-extinction of smallpox, or the Guinea Worm?

    (+3 red wine, which may possibly affect my thinking)

  25. 25
    low-tech cyclist says:

    Has anyone here read David Quammen’s 1996 book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions? First of all, it’s a great read, one of the two or three best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. By organizing his book around the development of our understanding of evolution and the special role that islands play in it, he avoids having the book become a depressing tale of the advance of extinctions, even though that’s what the book’s about.

    Second, Quammen researched and wrote it before climate change had become a front-burner issue to many of us, and the book doesn’t mention it at all. Which makes it clear that by chopping up the natural world into discrete islands where nature is still preserved, we were already headed towards a wave of extinctions, even without considering climate change.

    Anyhow, I recommend it highly.

  26. 26
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Mark k:

    June 3, August 3, Jan 3, any other third would be better in my opinion…..

    Omnes and I might not agree.

  27. 27
    AdamK says:

    BTW the singular of “aurochs” is “aurochs”, not “auroch.” Latin. Just like a single ox isn’t an ock.

  28. 28
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Just like a single ox isn’t an ock.

    Nor is a single lens a len.

  29. 29
    Baud says:


    Nor is it a peni.

  30. 30
    TriassicSands says:

    @low-tech cyclist:
    I consider The Song of the Dodo to be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Or at least my favorite. It is beautifully constructed. I, too, recommend it.

  31. 31
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Guam guy: thanks for reporting in. really sorry to hear that. apparently island flora and fauna are incredibly vulnerable; always have been.

  32. 32
  33. 33
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Dmbeaster: all great points, and your point that Paleolithic might be a better start point is well taken. (Although Holocene usefully reflects the impact of agriculture and, then, industrialization.)

    Also a great point about how we exterminated other species of Homo. I’ve been reading a ton of anthropology, lately – it’s such an exciting field right now, with all the new DNA and other techniques. One theory I read, probably in Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn (highly recommended) is that because H. sapiens has relatively little genetic diversity we all derived from an incredibly small group (like 250 people) that finally managed to bust out of Africa and into Asia etc. But not only was that group small, it had to be exceptionally aggressive / violent to have been able to finally – after probably innumerable attempts by prior groups – to vanquish H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, H. denisova, etc. And, as a result of all having descended from that small, violent clan, we’re now a pretty violent species.

    What do you think of that theory?

  34. 34
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @SteveinSC: thanks for posting. I will have to research that more.

    PS – don’t forget to check out the New Yorker story on the Passenger Pigeon, which is excellent.

  35. 35
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Mark k: appreciate the perspective.

  36. 36
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Achrachno: which is in some ways Baud’s comment, about us being the signature species whose extinction should represent the problem, is so on target. I tend toward optimism but if we do go extinct it will probably be because we treated the rest of nature which such contempt.

    speaking of old growth forests, check out Agarikon, the first fungi listed officially as endangered. it’s being lost due to destruction of habitat (old growth forests) and the fact that it’s a slow grower doesn’t help.

  37. 37
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Barney: good catch. that is bizarre.

  38. 38
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Achrachno: Thanks also on the correction of the name – it’s been fixed.

  39. 39
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @hellslittlestangel: good point. obviously “happy” should be in quotes.

  40. 40
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Adam L Silverman: thanks!

  41. 41
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Origuy: that would explain (plus my own semi-arbitrary excerpting of the wikipedia list) the elk’s predating the next selection by a few thousand years.

    Have you seen the Youtube videos of the last Thylacine? (Tasmanian tiger/wolf) Heartrending.

  42. 42
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Doug R: a pretty devastating observation, actually; I’m going to reread the piece with it in mind. i do think we target some animals based on similarity to us – dogs are an obvious example. At the same time we dote on the domestic ones, and feel strongly involved with them, we do everything we can to exterminate their wild cousins, the wolves, foxes, and coyotes. WHY?

  43. 43
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @joel hanes: thx. that’s a second vote for the ivory billed woodpecker.

  44. 44
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @AdamK: thanks for the erudition!

    and all you other kids – I’m talking to YOU SiubhanDuinne and Baud – settle down!

  45. 45
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @low-tech cyclist:

    two recs, so I will prioritize it. “beautifully constructed” is a great draw.
    have you people read 6th Extinction? also excellent.

  46. 46
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: it’s a valid and interesting question, even +3. Personally, I’m not gonna worry too much about noxious parasites, although I realize that there are often unintended consequences. Not sure if they were / will be in the cases you mention.

  47. 47
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @jharp: thanks for sharing. well aware of the emerald ash borer (we have ’em here in Michigan, too). even though the killed ash trees are prime hosts for morels, I’m sorry for it, and would rather have the live trees.

    Blue Pike, sure – thanks for reminding us.

    Which reminds me, somehow, of the devastated-but-not-quite-extinct American Chestnut.

  48. 48
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @Major Major Major Major: OMG. will have to read more on it. that sounds horrific. Thanks.

  49. 49
    Hillary Rettig says:

    @PurpleGirl: What a lovely project that is, thanks for sharing.

    Here, courtesy of my favorite sf writer, Joan Slonczewski, is an article on how people are selectively breeding corals to withstand increased ocean temps: https://ultraphyte.com/2016/04/24/sharer-of-hawaii-make-super-corals/

    I hope someone creates a bug or fungus to deal with the Pacific plastic patch – and soon!

  50. 50
    Hillary Rettig says:

    What a great thread, everyone. I’m learning so much – thanks to you all and good night and happy holidays to the USers. Maybe talk more on this tomorrow if anyone wants.

  51. 51
    la gata gris says:

    @Baud: “Weren’t mammoths hunted to extinction during the ice age?” No. They weren’t.

  52. 52
    Chris T. says:

    I have argued in the past with pseudo-economists (at least, I assume they must be) who say “we’ll never use up all the oil because the last few bits will be too expensive to extract.” Right, and this is why the Great Auk and the Dodo are still with us today…

  53. 53
    Maggie Sue says:

    We can’t become hopeless because in the past people slaughtered the last of a species. Now we have laws protecting endangered species and we have to work toward more awareness of habitat destruction. We have to counter global warming and therefore species extinction. I’m just afraid hopelessness leads to inaction.

  54. 54
    Guam guy says:

    @maya: the snake’s arrival accelerated the loss of our birds, but loss of habitat, over hunting, DDT, etc would have finished them off anyway

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