The story of the Great Auk is well told by The Smithsonian.
Essentially this was a very large bird that lived in great profusion in three islands of the north Atlantic, one near Newfoundland, and two near Iceland. A bit like a penguin or a huge puffin.
When explorers got to these places they were ‘easy meat’ – easily caught and providing a good food source for hungry sailors.
Not only that, their feathers became prized as an alternative to those of the Eider duck. People used to go to stay on the islands just to pluck their feathers, after which the birds died.
By 1775 the possibility of extinction was apparent and the British parliament legislated to ban killing of Great Auks, but there were loopholes.
The American population died out first, then an eruption destroyed the larger of the Icelandic islands. The birds became very scarce, an unsavoury collector’s dream. The last two birds were killed on the smaller island, Eldey, by trophy hunters in 1844, who trod on their egg.
A salutary lesson when we consider how to protect today’s endangered species in a far less amenable environment where there are far more human beings and climate change is occurring at the same time. They can only be saved if we get very serious about it.
Inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction, which contains a fuller description of the history.
Image is the only known illustration of a Great Auk drawn from life. By Ole Worm – Olaus Wormius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons