Audubon's illustration of two great auks

Great auk

Pinguinus impennis

Great auks were a species of flightless aquatic birds in the Alcidae family. They inhabited the rocky, isolated islands and skerries of the North Atlantic in Scandinavia, the British Isles, Canada, and Greenland. They were the largest Alcid to ever coexist with humans, weighing up to 11 pounds and reaching almost three feet in height. They had entirely black plumage except for white feathers on their belly and a patch above their eyes. 


Despite having a large population and being very widespread, their predictable nesting behaviour and flightlessness made them easy to hunt. Great auks were killed for their feathers to make beds, as well as for food. By the mid 19th century, they were increasingly rare, with one entire colony in Iceland slaughtered in 1844, with their eggs stomped on and the adults strangled by two locals. The last sighting recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was in 1852 when a single great auk was spotted on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.


Although it is accepted that great auks are extinct, some unconfirmed later sightings suggest they may have survived longer than what is currently thought.


In 1853, a seemingly recently dead great auk washed up on Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. Three years later on the west side of the same bay, a great auk was allegedly captured by some fishermen, though whatever happened to it is unknown.


In 1867, an Inuk man claimed to have captured a great auk on an island in the Qeqertarsuup tunua bay in Greenland. Unfortunately, he was unaware of its scientific importance, and he killed and ate it. The Inuk man told a Danish zoologist named Hansen his story two years later and was featured in Dr. Isaac J. Hayes’s 1871 book, The Land of Desolation.


According to the March 27th, 1880 issue of The Field magazine, Rev. G.C. Green met an elderly boat captain who had seen, and even killed, strange birds on the Scottish Isle of Arran, which he called "Arran auks." He described them as being flightless, aquatic, goose- or turkey-sized birds with a large and sharp beak. These birds were black in colour on their napes and backs and white on their stomachs. Green showed the man a bird encyclopedia and claimed the great auk illustration matched what he had observed. Unfortunately, the elderly captain died before he could obtain any more specimens. 


British nature writer, broadcaster, and conservative politician James Wentworth Day claimed that his childhood friend, Edward Valpy, saw a great auk in 1927. He claimed that he saw the great auk jump off the rocky shore near a quay on the Lofoten Islands in Norway.


In the fall 1929 issue of Bird Notes and News, an article by H.A.A. Dombrain was made about a great auk report. One of Dombrain's crewmates, Evenson, as well as a Finnish hunter and naturalist named Jodas, encountered a strange aquatic bird off the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Dombrain separately showed both men a large number of bird illustrations, and both independently picked the great auk.


It may be possible that great auks survived until much later than the currently accepted date, but it would be nearly impossible for them to still survive today undetected. They were extremely social and not very elusive, as they had very predictable behaviour. Prior to overhunting, great auks numbered in the millions, but only used about 20 or so breeding sites.