July 3, 2015

171 years ago today: 2 men killed the last 2 great auks.

From Wikipedia:
The last colony of great auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the "Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey, which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony. The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on 3 July 1844, on request from a merchant who wanted specimens, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.

Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Ísleifsson described the act as follows:
The rocks were covered with blackbirds [referring to Guillemots] and there were the Geirfugles ... They walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but [mine] was going to the edge of the cliff. [I] caught it close to the edge – a precipice many fathoms deep. The black birds were flying off. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.

46 comments:

tim maguire said...

It's always a bit shocking to read the casual attitude towards nature and destruction that we used to have, but with no more than 25 breeding pairs at the time of discovery, the Great Auks were doomed long before they crossed paths with humans.

The Drill SGT said...

Tim,

a million birds, 20 sites, not 20 pairs...

Original Mike said...

They shouldn't have given up flying.

tim maguire said...

You're right Sgt. I read the discovery of the last colony as the discovery of the bird.

The Drill SGT said...

Althouse, your quote would be about the best documented perhaps last killing. wiki also says:

It was on the islet of Stac an Armin, St Kilda, Scotland, in July 1844, that the last great auk seen in the British Isles was caught and killed.

Now your quote is about a killing on July 3, 1844, and the UK reference is a day in July 1844. The odds are that the unnamed day in the UK, was at or later that the Iceland July 3 date are better than 90%.

rhhardin said...

Tastes like chicken.

Gahrie said...

You know what? The world didn't end when the Auk went extinct.

Isn't that the way nature is supposed to work...some species becoming extinct, new species evolving and/or replacing that that went extinct?

Coupe said...

The thing that doomed them, was their guano was worthless as a fertilizer, or filling cracks in boats.

MadisonMan said...

The fish that Auk ate celebrate the day as Independence Day.

tim maguire said...

Gahrie said...
You know what? The world didn't end when the Auk went extinct.

Isn't that the way nature is supposed to work...some species becoming extinct, new species evolving and/or replacing that that went extinct?


Well...yes, in the great span of history, the human-caused mass extinction is no great shakes. The world will be just fine for virtually all of the hundreds of millions of years life goes on after our time is over. But on a more human scale, the span of time you and I and our children care about, the world we live in gets a little poorer, less interesting, less able to cope with change. With each species we kill off, the environment we live in becomes more fragile and less amenable to a happy humanity.

Gahrie said...

With each species we kill off, the environment we live in becomes more fragile and less amenable to a happy humanity.

Really?

Humans have been driving species to extinction for thousands of years, probably the entire length of our history, and as far as I can tell, things continue to get better for humanity in every way.

There are more humans in existence, with a longer life span, and a better quality of life, than at any other point in our existence.

Paco Wové said...

The egg-crushing bit seems a little over the top.

Ambrose said...

For an interesting novel based on this event consider "Collector of Lost Things" Jeremy Page. (I have no connection with author or book)

William said...

I would like to see the mosquito driven to extinction.......Shame about the auk, but the snail darter has profited from his example.

tim maguire said...

Gahrie, yes, really. You take a very narrow very short-term view and ignore quite a bit.

Gahrie said...

Short term? I talked about the span of human existence!

OK..since you appear to be one of the "save everything" nuts, answer me some questions.

1) How do we know if an animal is supposed to go extinct or not?

2) Isn't preventing the extinction of a species that is "supposed" to go extinct just as bad as driving a species into extinction? Both are meddling in the natural order of things.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

The idea of museums rushing to kill off the remaining birds so that they'd have stuffed specimens to display is just unfathomably far from current practice. WTF were they thinking?

Gahrie, there are distinctions to be made here. The great auk is a tragedy. The whooping crane and the California condor are not-yet-tragedies. The passenger pigeon is a literal enormity: hordes of determined "sportsmen" methodically wiping out what might have been the most numerous bird species (certainly the most conspicuous) on the planet.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Gahrie, there is no "supposed to." Spare me "Que sera, sera." If you are going to argue that the great auk and the passenger pigeon (!) and the Blauwwbock and any number of other species were just going to go extinct anyway, and we'd be "meddling" to save them, I'd suggest meddling in some other direction, please. Starlings. Kudzu. Lionfish (at least where they don't belong, like the Gulf). Whatever noxious fish is currently penetrating to the Great Lakes. Poison oak/ivy. Bindweed.

bbkingfish said...

Now, that's white privilege.

cubanbob said...

Maybe it's just me but I find it to be immoral to drive a species to extinction for no good purpose. These creatures filled a niche in the environment which is why they existed in the first place. There is still a rather large amount of things related to biology that we don't know about and if nothing more than that for utilitarian reasons it isn't a good idea to drive species to extinction.

Anonymous said...

The Great Auk seems to have inspired Edward Gorey:


https://goo.gl/P1WRst

Gahrie said...

So nothing ever becomes extinct anymore. Ever. No matter the cost. Because otherwise people will feel bad.

Gahrie said...

Anybody wonder why the only large herbivore in North America before the Spanish arrived was the Bison?

I wonder what happened to all of the rest of them?

Godot said...

It's a shame. But at least the men who did this weren't sentenced to endless days of sexually deadening, monotonous work.

SteveBrooklineMA said...

Who mourns North America's lost plague locust?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_Mountain_locust

This is the extinction that astounds me.

Original Mike said...

"So nothing ever becomes extinct anymore. Ever. No matter the cost. Because otherwise people will feel bad."

I didn't take you as one for straw men.

MadisonMan said...

Who mourns North America's lost plague locust?

It saves us from the unforeseen resurrection of any evil Mummy.

Theranter said...

Will someone please tell the Pope their extinction was not due to climate change?

Coupe said...
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Anonymous said...

This is just cruel evolution taking its course. Extinction is a part of evolution.

How many creatures such as these have become extinct over the last thousand years? I'm sure at least twice as many have evolved since then. Otherwise, we would have to question a system in which more are dying off than coming into existence.

And we cannot question evolution.

Bob R said...

They were reported to be delicious. Delicious + defenseless + no one's property = extinct.

Original Mike said...

"There was actually 11 commandments given to Moses."

There were 15 commandments.

Original Mike said...

"And we cannot question evolution."

Of course you can question evolution. Now, as to the quality of your questions ...

Rusty said...

How many species went extinct in north america before the evil white man even set foot on this contenent?
Lots.

campy said...

That's a pretty good auk in the picture, I wouldn't call it Great.

Gahrie said...

"So nothing ever becomes extinct anymore. Ever. No matter the cost. Because otherwise people will feel bad."

I didn't take you as one for straw men.


Ok, describe for me them the method and rationale for deciding which species we are going to allow to go extinct as part of the natural process of evolution.

As far as I can tell, the status quo s that no species is to be allowed to go extinct, and no matter how obscure, no matter how closely related to a different subspecies, we will literally cripple a whole state's economy and spend billions to save it.

so..which species should we allow to go extinct as part of the natural process of evlution, and how did you pick them?

Chris N said...

That's the problem with the 'great' auk. Arrogance. Hubris. Filling a niche between the penguin and some torpid, flightless rock--bird that no one in particular had asked for.

And so Bjorn and Lothar come ambling over the rocks to squeeze them the life out of them, one by one. Not with a bang but with a whimper.



sane_voter said...

I wish the Great Auk was still around.

I believe the passenger pigeon was considered a pest and a food source. Huge flocks crapping on everything and eating fruit trees bare. Imagine a regular pigeon flock times 10,000.

Also the Whooping crane appears to be at a dead end evolutionarily. All these scientists babying tiny flocks, flying with them on migratory paths, side by side with tens of thousands of sandhill cranes that are virtually indistinguishable from the whooping cranes (they are a little smaller) and who are flourishing. What a waste of resources and scientific effort.

Anonymous said...

Deforestation rather than hunting is the likely cause of the passenger pigeon's extinction. For reasons still unexplained the birds would breed only when in huge flocks. That, in turn, required enormous uninterrupted tracts of forest land. With the coming of agriculture to the Midwest, there were fewer and smaller forest tracts, and the birds stopped breeding.

Peter

Terry said...

It's kind of sad that we care more about dead birds than the growth in numbers and wealth of the human race in the 19th Century.

Jeff Teal said...

Terry most ecologists forget that man is natural too.

Original Mike said...

"As far as I can tell, the status quo s that no species is to be allowed to go extinct, and no matter how obscure, no matter how closely related to a different subspecies, we will literally cripple a whole state's economy and spend billions to save it."

I see your point. But I don't think the wanton destruction of the Auk is a good example of it.

Alex said...

The 19th century will long be remembered as the barbaric century when it comes to wildlife in America.

Deja Voodoo said...

Þarf Iceland tag