Remembering the Great Auk

Many countries have erected memorials to commemorate the lives and violent deaths of their heroes.  In the U.S., individuals, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, have been honored in this way, as have groups of people who have prematurely met their ends in wars and other violent actions, from the American Revolution to 9-11.

Few countries have recognized the extinction of non-human species. Iceland is a notable exception. 

On a ruggedly desolate section of coastline on the southwestern tip of that frigid island stands a six foot high bronze sculpture of a great auk, Pinguinus pennis, a flightless bird that was driven to extinction through its excessive harvest by humans in the early 19th century. It is a powerful and surprisingly moving tribute to a now forever missing part of the natural world.

Bronze sculpture of the extinct great auk by American artist Todd McGrain located on Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland

The great auk was a large black and white bird that lived on fish and other seafood.  It once ranged widely on ocean edges as far south as northern Spain and along the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland and Great Britain.  Being flightless, it became an easy target for humans and other invasive animals in need of food.

The great auk nested in extremely dense social colonies with easy access from the sea, and so they were especially vulnerable to human predation. Easily caught and/or clubbed to death, they were taken aboard ships, along with their eggs, to provide food for seamen whose other provisions were often stretched thin during long sea journeys. The birds were also killed by Icelanders for food and lamp oil, and for their feathers, which were used in pillows and mattresses.

Great auk illustration by Edward Lear from John Gould’s The Birds of Europe (1832-1837)

On June 3, 1844, the world’s last two great auks were killed on the island of Eldey, which lies about 10 miles (16 km) off Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, southwest of the capital city Reykjavík. The birds had moved to Eldey from a nearby island called Geirfuglasker, following a volcanic eruption there in 1830. (In earlier times, the great auk was also known as the garefowl, from the Norse, geirfugl.)

When the Eldey colony was discovered in 1835, there were almost 50 birds nesting on the island’s steep basaltic cliffs. Within 10 years even these had been hunted to extinction.

Gazing forlornly out to Eldey and Geirfuglasker from Reykjanestá, Iceland, the great auk memorial was created by the American artist Todd McGrain as part of a series of bigger-than-life sculptures he has made of extinct birds known as “the Lost Bird Project.” It was paid for by private donors and installed in 2011.

You can see a great auk in a diorama on the third floor of the Academy.  It was purchased, along with more than 12,000 other bird specimens, from the French collector the Duc de Rivoli in 1846.  When and where it was collected is unknown.

While it is unlikely that Iceland’s great auk memorial will ever become a popular tourist destination, it deserves to be.  It is both an elegant celebration of life on earth and a grim reminder of what damage humans can do when selfishly and thoughtlessly exploiting its resources.

By Robert M. Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

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