A sea bird of the Alca family; as, the great auk, or northern penguin (Alca impennis), the Labrador auk, or puffin (Fratercula Arctica). — Webster, 1882
They had never seen a bird like it. It was small, but it looked exactly like the picture of the great auk in Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World. – The Long Winter, Chapter 5, “After the Storm”
The Great Auk (Alca impennis) or garefowl has been extinct for over 150 years. There is a specimen in the Smithsonian Institution and a number of old drawings exist. The bird found by Charles Ingalls was almost certainly the little auk, also called a dovekie (Alle alle). The dovekie is a small arctic seabird about the size of a starling. It would have been unusual – although not impossible – for a dovekie to have been carried as far inland as eastern Dakota Territory during a blizzard. An adult dovekie is small enough to have fit in Pa’s pocket. Although they have short wings in proportion to their body, the dovekie is an excellent flier. Adult birds are black on the head, neck, and wings, with white underparts. The bill is short, and they have a small rounded black tail. They forage for food by swimming under water, eating mainly fish and small invertebrates.
The Giant-Auk, from Pa’s “big green animal book.” The rarest bird of Iceland, if not entirely extinct, is the Giant-auk, or Geirfugel. The last pair was caught about seventeen years ago [note: seventeen years prior to 1871] near the Geirfuglaskers, a group of solitary rocks to the south of the Westman Isles, its only known habitat besides some similar cliffs on the north-eastern coast. Since that time it his said to have been seen by some fishermen; but this testimony is extremely doubtful, and the question of its existence can only be solved by a visit to the Geirfuglaskers themselves– an undertaking which, if practicable at all, is attended with extreme difficulty and danger, as these rocks are completely isolated in the sea, which even in calm weather breaks with such violence against their abrupt declivities that for years it must be absolutely impossible to approach them.
In 1858 two English naturalists determined at least to make the attempt, and settled for a season in a small hamlet on the neighboring coast, eager to seize the first opportunity for storming the Geirfugl’s stronghold. They waited for several months, but in vain, the stormy summer being more than usually unfavorable for their undertaking; and they were equally unsuccessful in the north, whither they had sent an Icelandic student specially instructed for the purpose. The giant-auk is three feet high, and has a black bill four inches and a quarter long, both mandibles being crossed obliquely with several ridges and furrows. Its wings are mere stumps, like those of the Antarctic penguins. Thirty pounds have been paid for its egg, which is larger than that of any other European bird; and there is no knowing the price the Zoological Society would pay for a live bird, if this truly “rara avis” could still be found… — Dr. George Hartwig, The Polar and Tropical Worlds: A Description of Man and Nature in the Polar and Equatorial Regions of the Globe (Springfield, Massachusetts: Bill, Nichols & Company, 1871), 85-86.
The Great Auk. The Great Auk, or Garefowl (Alca impennis), was the largest member of the Auk family, distinguished not only by its size, but by its lightlessness, enjoying the proud distinction of being the solo bird in the northern hemisphere incapable of flight. The name by which the Great Auk was originally and commonly known in America was Penguin, and the southern birds, now known by that title, did not receive this appellation until many years after. Garefowl is of Scandinavian origin, and comes to us by way of western Scotland.
In color the Great Auk much resembled its lesser relative, the Razorbill, the head, neck, and back being black, and the under parts white. A peculiar mark of the bird was a large white spot in front of the eye; one old writer with a greater love of the marvelous than of truthfulness stating that this spot was found on the right side only. The wings, although far too small to sustain the bird in the air, formed an admirable pair of oars, the Great Auk being a most expert swimmer and diver, and performing even longer migrations than many of its relatives that were endowed with the power of flight. many, possibly all, of the Auk family use their wings quite as much as their feet for propulsion under water, and they may literally be said to fly beneath the sea as well as over it. It has been noted that the inability of the Great Auk to fly was due to lack of development of the bones of the forearm and hand, the humerus being proportionately as long as in other Auks. This modification of structure was directly correlated with the aquatic habits of the Garefowl, for the resistance of water being vastly greater than that of air, a wing especially adapted for subaquatic flight would demand less surface and more power than a wing formed for aerial locomotion. In the case of the Great Auk this demand was met by shortening the outer portion of the wing, while other birds that use their wings in diving obtain as far as possible the same result by only partially opening their wings.
The Great Auk was confined to the North Atlantic, ranging on the European side from Iceland to the Bay of Biscay, and on the American from Greenland to Virginia, these localities marking the extreme limits of the bird’s migration.
Greenland was the habitat of the Garefowl to a very limited extent, and the same may be said of the coast of Norway, while the southern limits given above were reached only during the winter migrations of the bird. The positively known breeding places were few in number, those were the bird bred abundantly, being the Garefowl Skerries off the coast of Iceland and Funk Island on the Newfoundland coast. These islands, or more properly islets, were very similar in their general character, being isolated rocks, lying at some distance from shore and difficult of access. OF course the reason for this similarity is apparent. The Great Auk and its eggs formed desirable articles of food, and since the bird was helpless on land, it was easily captured, whence it came to pass at an early date that the bird was exterminated at all localities easy of access. Another and more important factor in the extermination of the Auk, especially in America, is to be found in the gregarious habits of the bird and its predilection for certain breeding-places. This habit of the Garefowl is shown by other birds which are restricted in their breeding habitat without any apparent reason, although there may be some unknown cause in the nature of food-supply that might account for it. A good example of this is found in the Gannet, which, although a bird of powerful flight, breeds at only three localities on the eastern coast of America, and in Europe crosses the North Sea to nest in Scotland, when localities seemingly quite as favorable exist along the shores of Norway. There were apparently plenty of suitable breeding-grounds for the Great Auk in Maine and Labrador, but had the bird bred in small colonies at localities scattered along this wide expanse of territory, it would have been in existence today.
The most important European breeding place of the Garefowl was an islet 25 miles off Reykjanes, Iceland, where, for many years, it led a somewhat precarious existence, several times seeming to have been so reduced in numbers that expeditions in search of birds and eggs were not worth the risk. Still the bird would have existed in this locality many years longer than it did, but for volcanic disturbances in March, 1830, during which the Geirfglasker sank beneath the sea compelling the existing Garefowl to seek new breeding places. Most of them appear to have moved to an islet by the name of Eldey, and this being near the coast and more accessible, the few remaining Great Auks were in the course of fourteen years all killed, the last pair being taken about the 3rd of June, 1844, this being the last authentic record of the Great Auk in Europe. It was from this locality that most of the skins now extant were obtained, only one mounted specimen being recorded from American localities, although nearly all skeletons have come from Newfoundland. The history of the Great Auk in America may be said to date from 1534, when, on May 21, two boat’s crews from Cartier’s vessels landed on Funk Island, and, as we are told, “In lesse than halfe an hour we filled two boats full of them, as if they had bene stones. So that besides them which we did eat fresh, every ship did powder and salt five or sixe barrels of them.” The Great Auk having thus been apprized of the advent of civilization in the regular manner, continued to be utilized by all subsequent visitors. The French fisherman depended very largely on the Great Auks to supply them with provisions; passing ships touched at Funk Island for supplies; the early colonists barreled them up for winter use, and the great abundance of the birds was set forth among other inducements to encourage emigration to Newfoundland. The immense numbers of the Auks may be inferred from the fact that they withstood these drains for more than two centuries, although laying but a single egg, and consequently increasing but slowly under the most favorable circumstances. Finally some one conceived the idea of killing the Garefowl for their feathers, and this sealed their fate. When and where the scheme originated, and how long the slaughter lasted, we know not, for the matter is rather one of general report than of recorded fact, although in this instance circumstantial evidence bears witness to the truth of Cartwright’s statement that it was customary for several crews of men to pass the summer on Funk Island solely to slay the Great Auks for their feathers. That the birds were slain by millions; that their bodies were left to molder where they were killed; that stone pens were erected; and that for some purpose frequent and long continued fires were built on Funk Island, is indisputable. This locality has been but thrice visited by naturalists, the last time in the summer of 1887, by a party from the U.S. National Museum, who, by the aid of the U.S. Fish Commission, were enabled to obtain much information in regard to this interesting spot, and to make very extensive collections of remains of the Great Auk. Just when the Great Auk ceased to exist in America is unknown, for there were few naturalists on this side of the water when the Garefowl was being done to the death; but the extinction took place not far from 1840, almost coincidently with the extermination of the bird in Europe. Few birds have received more attention than has the Great Auk since it became extinct, and it has been the subject of numerous papers, both popular and scientific, while its remains bring extravagant prices whenever chance brings them into the market. The last skeleton sold brought $600, the last skin $650, while an egg brought $1,250, and was resold for the round sum of $1,500. — Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Year Ending June 30, 1889 (Washington: U.S. Printing Office, 1889), 638-641.
auk, great (TLW 5)
little auk (TLW 5-6), see dovkie – The bird most likely found by Charles Ingalls at Silver Lake, which looked like the picture of the Giant Auk in his big green animal book.