When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot
Birds once plentiful and abundant, are the subject of a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum
by Samantha Galasso

It was not until the mid-16th century when European sailors began to explore the seas, harvesting the eggs of nesting adults that the Great Auk faced imminent danger. “Overharvesting by people doomed the species to extinction,” says Helen James, curator of the exhibition and a research zoologist at the Natural History Museum. “Living in the north Atlantic where there were plenty of sailors and fishermen at sea over the centuries, and having the habit of breeding colonially on only a small number of islands, was a lethal combination of traits for the Great Auk.”
The auks required very specific nesting conditions that restricted them to a small number of islands. They showed a preference for Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, and Geirfuglasker and Eldey islands, off the coast of Iceland, and St. Kilda, all of which provided rocky terrain and sloping shorelines with access to the seashore. A sailor wrote that in 1718, Funk Island was so populated by Great Auks that “a man could not go ashore upon those islands without boots, for otherwise they would spoil his legs, that they were entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.”…
(read more: Smithsonian Magazine)
illustration by JG Keulemans

When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot

Birds once plentiful and abundant, are the subject of a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum

by Samantha Galasso

It was not until the mid-16th century when European sailors began to explore the seas, harvesting the eggs of nesting adults that the Great Auk faced imminent danger. “Overharvesting by people doomed the species to extinction,” says Helen James, curator of the exhibition and a research zoologist at the Natural History Museum. “Living in the north Atlantic where there were plenty of sailors and fishermen at sea over the centuries, and having the habit of breeding colonially on only a small number of islands, was a lethal combination of traits for the Great Auk.”

The auks required very specific nesting conditions that restricted them to a small number of islands. They showed a preference for Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, and Geirfuglasker and Eldey islands, off the coast of Iceland, and St. Kilda, all of which provided rocky terrain and sloping shorelines with access to the seashore. A sailor wrote that in 1718, Funk Island was so populated by Great Auks that “a man could not go ashore upon those islands without boots, for otherwise they would spoil his legs, that they were entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.”…

(read more: Smithsonian Magazine)

illustration by JG Keulemans

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    The Auks of Funk Island. Dibs on that band name.
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