While browsing through my Twitter-feed, I realized that today is World Seabird Day. But why is this day – the 3rd of July – dedicated to seabirds? Because on this day in 1844, the last Great Auks (Pinguinus impennis) were seen (and killed) on Eldey, of the coast of Iceland. Hopefully, we can avoid that other seabird species suffer the same faith.
The species went extinct due to human exploitation, mostly because of its down. An account from 1794 by Aaron Thomas, who worked aboard the HMS Boston, illustrates the cruelty that the Great Auks had to cope with and eventually drove them to extinction:
If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leasure. This is not a very humane method but it is the common practice. While you abide on this island you are in the constant practice of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their bodies being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.
The Great Auk – commonly regarded as the penguin of the northern hemisphere – stood about one meter tall and weighed approximately five kilograms. It had a wingslength of no less than 15 centimeter, which is obviously too short to fly. From an evolutionary point of view, the Great Auk is probably most closely related to the extant Razorbill (Alca torda).
The scientific journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union is named The Auk in honor of this bird. I am proud to have published at least one paper in this journal (you can read it here). My way of honoring this iconic bird.