Walking the plank to extinction
The history of the great auk
Stella M. Turk MBE
As large, heavy and tasty as a Goose
The Great Auk was caught with little ruse.
These flightless birds had a need
To come on land in order to breed.
Alas! - they were taken, as they came ashore,
By seamen replenishing their on-board store.
Birds were driven up planks to each boat
To feed the crews whilst they were afloat.
The Great Auk was abundant for centuries
although humans had a very long history
of taking them for food. However, huge numbers
were slaughtered between 1600 and 1800, and corpses of the very last two, were recorded in 1844.
They were strong swimmers and covered
great distances, but they had to come on land
to breed; and having lost the power of flight,
they were very vulnerable. Islands were always chosen and there are records from St Kilda off Scotland. Within the past few decades, their remains have been found in middens on the Isles of Scilly. (see Cornish Archaeology No. 35 (1996).
There is information on the Internet, but these
notes are compiled from Purnell’s Encyclopedia of
Animal Life. My interest arose when Patricia Burton
borrowed fthe plaster cast of a skull for one of
her pupils. This skull was moulded by the taxidermist Ken Everett, from a Great Auk’s skull in Oxford University Museum.
Stella M Turk MBE