Do you remember the story of the Great Auk, or as Icelanders like to call it, the geirfugl? The history of this extinct bird is staple curriculum in Icelandic schools, probably because three Icelanders killed the very last mating pair about 170 years ago. However, “the history of the Great Auk has faded away” in Iceland, says Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson, wildlife ecologist at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Though at first, he says, “nobody knew they were killing the last auk,” as soon as the truth of the matter revealed itself, Icelanders had to carry the burden of a “collective guilt that we did the Great Auk in.”
But we have been massacring this poor, clumsy bird before humans were technically humans. Yes, believe it, Neanderthals hunted Great Auks over 100.000 years ago. And a whole lot of death occurred between then and that notable day of July 3, 1844 when the book of Great Auk was slammed shut. So who should really be held responsible for the extinction of the Great Auk? How much of the blame should Icelanders carry on their shoulders? Could the bird itself take some of it? Maybe just a little?
POINTING FINGERS, IF ONLY LITTLE ONES
The Great Auk, in some ways, had it coming. Living in the wilds of the North Atlantic and having a picky disposition when selecting breeding grounds is akin to accepting only foie gras for dinner during the Irish potato famine. Great Auks would only breed on rocky, remote islands near easily accessible food sources. They’d settle with no less than islands with sloping shorelines, which gave the birds easy access to the ocean, where they spent the majority of their time.
The birds were excellent swimmers, but their ability to traverse land resembled a drunken Icelander on a weekend night in Reykjavík. Just as easily as you could net a hipster leaving Bakkus at 5am on a Saturday, you could casually stroll up to a geirfugl, put ’em in a bag and eat ’em for dinner with some potatoes (the bird, not the hipster). For some strange reason, these animals didn’t have an innate fear of humans, which many cultures took advantage of for thousands of years, including the Maritime Archaic people of Newfoundland and Saqqaq Inuits of Greenland.
BUT IT’S NOT OKAY
Though the Great Auk made it super easy for us to wipe them out, it doesn’t exactly warrant our overexploitation. Yeah, you could probably make a living out of mugging old ladies on the street, but the ease of it doesn’t make it morally acceptable (unless they’re giving you sass about your haircut, or something). Frankly, when pillows become more valued than the survival of a species, it’s hard not to wonder whether humanity had its priorities straight.
Starting in the eighth century, Great Auks were hunted in droves for their feathers. By the mid-sixteenth century, the breeding colonies along the European boundary of the Atlantic were almost completely wiped out by humans smitten with selling the luxury of down pillows. Finally by 1775, the Brits banned the killing of auks for their feathers and eggs, though the birds could still legally be killed for bait and food. This was one of the first environmental laws, which, in many people’s eyes, made the Great Auk the “emblem for extinct birds,” says Kristinn.
Though the severity of public flogging, the punishment for killing an auk for feathers, was discouraging, anyone with minimal intelligence could deduce an easy way out of publicized embarrassment and torture: say you’re hunting the auk for bait (“Yes, officer, it was only a cigarette, I swear.”), and save the feathers as a keepsake of your trials and tribulations at sea.
But anything that’s worse than reckless overindulgence in life, is reckless overindulgence in death. In a grave near Port of Choix, Newfoundland that dates back to around 2.000 B.C., archaeologists found a person buried in a suit made of more than 200 Great Auk skins, the heads left on for extra bling.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Nothing really tops the way the last Great Auk of the British Isles was killed. Sorry Icelanders, you didn’t win the barbarian award this time around. In July of 1840 on the Saint Kilda archipelago in Scotland, three local men caught and killed the very last Great Auk of the region. They tied the bird up and kept it alive for three days, until a hefty storm loomed over their islet. Instead of assuming that the intermingling of warm and cold air caused the storm (maybe too logical for the times), the men took the shitty weather personally, accused the auk of stirring the skies with witchcraft, and beat it to death with a stick. The impact of the slaughter on the storm’s cessation was inconclusive.
By 1835, after centuries of mass annihilation, one colony of about fifty auks remained on Eldey, an island off the coast of Iceland. But when museums and private collectors found out the Great Auk had become so scarce, they commissioned any willing body to hunt down and kill auks for their skins and eggs to put on display in their collections. The irony of this situation couldn’t possibly have evaded the people of the time. I’d even bet the sign underneath the specimens on display in museums read something like, “Great Auk skin, RARE bird species of the North Atlantic.”
On July 3, 1844, three Icelandic sailors by the names of Sigurður Ísleifsson, Ketill Ketilsson and Jón Brandsson, travelled to Eldey to collect specimens as requested by Danish natural history collector Carl Siemsen. Jón and Sigurður each found and killed the male and female of the last mating auk pair (thought they didn’t know it at the time), but Ketill was left empty-handed. Poor Ketill, feeling left out, decided to smash the last auk pair’s egg with his boot. And that was that.
OVER BEFORE WE STARTED?
In the world of extinction, great emphasis is always put upon the last of a species. The events that take place in the beginning and middle have less weight because, by default, the animal’s numbers are probably doing alright then. But ask any conservationist and they will tell you that when there’s only one lonely couple left of a species, the game is already over. So Icelanders, yes, you technically killed the last hope for the Great Auk, but widen the scope of the extinction lens and you certainly weren’t alone.