Famous Lasts The Last Great Auk Bird

About the famous last great auk, the now extinct bird's history and information.

THE LAST GREAT AUK

The 2-ft., flightless North Atlantic seabird--a member of the penguin family--was clubbed to death, together with its mate, on Eldey Island, Iceland, on June 4, 1844. The harmless and practically defenseless pair was killed for food.

Mystery surrounds the final days of the great auk (Pinguinus impennis). There was a sighting in Ireland in 1821, and another in July, 1840, on St. Kilda Island in the Hebrides, when five local fishermen caught and killed one of the last auks on earth. They found the creature asleep on a ledge of rock. Swiftly, they tied its feet together and took it to their cottage. For three days it was kept alive, but a frightening storm alarmed it into making noises "like a gannet but much louder." The superstitious fishermen were convinced the poor bird was in fact a witch calling to the devil. One fisherman, Malcolm McDonald, held it by the neck with both hands while the others tied its legs. As it struggled, its long, sharp, hooked bill nearly cut the rope in two. They beat it with sticks and stones for over two hours before it finally died.

The great auk has commanded the highest price ever paid for a stuffed bird. At Sotheby's Auction Rooms in London, in 1971, the director of the Natural History Museum of Iceland (appropriately enough) paid pound 9,000 for a splendid specimen in its full summer plumage. He later admitted he would have gone up to pound 23,000 for such a perfect example. It was originally collected by the naturalist Count F.C. Raben in Iceland around 1821. The great auk's egg has also set a record; a single specimen sold on Nov. 15, 1934, for slightly over pound 330.

On Sept. 21, 1977, one of 80 extant stuffed great auks was sold by the University of Durham for pound 4,200. The specimen had been bought 140 years earlier for the princely sum of pound 5. It had spent most of its time in the university's zoology department, where, despite its enormous rarity, most passersby ignored it. Sotheby's expert described the great auk as being "like a penguin but a bit more stupid."

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