[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.
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 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.