Audubon’s Great Auk became extinct

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Audubon painted the Great Auk, despite the fact that he never saw a living specimen, leaving us a lasting record of this extinct species.

John James Audubon Birds of America Plate 341 Great Auk Giclée Print
Audubon's Great Auk. Plate 341

Audubon painted five birds that are now extinct. One of these is the Great Auk, a seabird measuring 75 cm in height, which bred on rocky, isolated islands. These provided easy access to the ocean, and a plentiful food supply, a rarity in nature that severely restricted the breeding sites for the great auks. When not breeding, they spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic.

As Audubon travelled along the coast in 1833, local people told him that the birds lived on at least one desolate island off Newfoundland. Yet by the end of the summer, Audubon and his team were unable to find these large, flightless seabirds.

Audubon wrote in his diary

“When I was in Labrador, many of the fishermen assured me that the “Penguin,” as they name this bird, breeds on a low rocky island to the south-east of Newfoundland, where they destroy great numbers of the young for bait, but as this intelligence came to me when the season was too far advanced, I had no opportunity of ascertaining its accuracy.

“In Newfoundland, however, I received similar information from several individuals. An old gunner residing on Chelsea Beach, near Boston, told me that he well remembered the time when the Penguins were plentiful about Nahant and some other islands in the bay.”

How did Audubon paint the Great Auk if he had never seen a living specimen?

Audubon included the Great Auk in his famous book Birds of America, but he never saw one alive. He had to base his painting on a stuffed Great Auk specimen that he bought in London in 1836. 

He painted the birds as if they were alive, but he left the background, as he often did, to Robert Havell Jr., his engraver. Havell painted the steep cliffs and gale force waves, even though he had not been on the expedition to Newfoundland or Labrador.

The decline of the Great Auk

This illustration of hunting Great Auks on the coast of Newfoundland was made in 1880, decades after the birds had been hunted to extinction.
This illustration of hunting Great Auks on the coast of Newfoundland was made in 1880, decades after the birds had been hunted to extinction.

By the time Audubon painted the illustrations for his book, Birds of America, the bird had already dwindled in significant numbers. The Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1500 to 1800, had left far more land than water in the cold north. The flightless birds were powerful swimmers, but clumsy on the land, making them easy prey for polar bears and other land-based predators.

The Great Auk was an important part of many Native American cultures, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. But for most of their existence, the Great Auk flourished far away from human beings and never learned to be wary of them. 

For the early European settlers, explorers and sailors attempting to find food, these large and flightless birds were easy prey. Not only in the ocean, but especially when the birds left the waters to breed. The Great Auk and their eggs were a convenient food source and the chicks were used as bait for catching cod. 

This soon led to a dramatic reduction in their numbers.

Conservation and extinction of the Great Auk

Attempts to protect the Great Auk started in 1553 and by 1794 laws to protect the species were very strict. However, these proved ineffectual and even resulted in more hunting of the bird. 

Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors who wanted to obtain skins and eggs of these birds. Rich Europeans would pay $16,for one specimen of an adult bird or an egg, the equivalent then of a year’s wage for a skilled worker. 

On June 3, 1844, less than a decade after Audubon painted the bird for his book, the last breeding pair of Great Auks were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland

Christoph Irmscher about the illustration Great Auk (Plate 341)

John James Audubon Birds of America Plate 341 Great Auk Giclée Print
Audubon Great Auk Plate 341
“The scene as a whole has a fantastical quality, removed from any reality we might want to associate with it: the waves arrested in timelessness as in Japanese prints, the rocks bathed in a light that seems to come from nowhere in particular, a perfect stage for birds that exist no longer in nature, but only in the naturalist’s mind and on the pages of his big book.”