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The Ivory Bill·Birds·Extinct Birds

Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis

Great Auk on an ocean ice sheet

Great Auks were large, flightless seabirds that bred in colonies on rocky islands in the North Atlantic, particularly off the coasts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Northern Europe during the spring and summer months. They were once called penguins.

Great Auks were commonly found on isolated, rocky islets and coastal cliffs with abundant nesting crevices away from terrestrial predators.

They foraged in cold, nutrient-rich waters, diving to considerable depths to catch fish such as capelin, Atlantic herring, and sand lance. They also fed on crustaceans like amphipods and other marine invertebrates.

Great Auks had streamlined bodies and powerful, flipper-like wings that enabled them to swim and dive with remarkable agility. They could stay underwater for extended periods and reach significant depths to capture their prey.

Great Auks were distinguished by their large size, black and white plumage, and a distinctive white patch in front of each eye. Their short, robust beaks were adapted for catching and holding slippery fish.

Courtship involved mutual preening and vocalizations. Pairs often engaged in synchronized movements and displays on land and in the water, reinforcing their pair bonds.

Nests were simple scrapes on bare rock or shallow depressions lined with pebbles and vegetation. Nesting colonies were dense, with pairs nesting close together on cliffs and rocky outcrops. Egg-laying occurred in late spring to early summer.

Females laid a single egg, which both parents incubated for about 39-44 days. After hatching, both adults fed the chick with regurgitated fish and crustaceans.

Chicks learned to forage by following their parents to the water, observing their diving and hunting techniques. As they grew, they became more adept at catching prey. Vulnerabilities included predation by gulls and skuas, as well as human disturbance.

Great Auks did not migrate long distances but dispersed widely across the North Atlantic outside the breeding season, frequenting coastal waters where they could find abundant fish and crustaceans.

The decline and eventual extinction of Great Auks were driven by intense hunting for their meat, feathers, and oil, as well as the collection of their eggs. By the mid-19th century, over-exploitation and habitat disturbances led to their extinction, with the last confirmed sighting in 1852.

Great Auks were heavily exploited for their meat, eggs, and feathers, especially from the 16th century onwards. Overhunting for food and down feathers, used in pillows and clothing, significantly reduced their populations. Their eggs were also collected extensively, and they were often captured and killed for their skins, which were used in museums and private collections. The Great Auk’s decline accelerated in the early 19th century as demand for their products increased.

Efforts to protect Great Auks were minimal during their existence due to limited awareness of conservation needs and the lack of organized conservation movements at the time. Laws against hunting Great Auks on both sides of the Atlantic were unenforceable and ignored. By the time their critical situation was recognized, the population had dwindled too far to be saved. The last confirmed breeding pair was killed in 1844 on Eldey Island, Iceland, marking the species’ extinction.

Occasional reports of sightings motivated expeditions to remote islands and coasts of the North Atlantic during the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries but none were substantiated.