Cover image for The great auk
The great auk
Fuller, Errol.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Abrams, [1999]

Physical Description:
448 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 31 cm
General Note:
"A Peter N. Nevraumont book."
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
QL696.C42 F85 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Oversize

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Illustrated throughout, this book provides complete coverage of every aspect of the natural history of the Great Auk, a flightless bird which became extinct over 150 years ago. It catalogues every known specimen and surviving egg, and chronicles its frequent appearances in art and literature.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

A 400-page book on a bird that has been extinct for more than 150 years? This "penguin of the north" (great auks were the original bearers of the name penguin) was driven to extinction by fierce human persecution--it was literally hunted out of existence--and has exerted a powerful hold on the imagination ever since. Flightless seabirds that nested on islands, great auks were easy prey for hungry sailors and were killed for their feathers, fat, and oil, and, in final irony, for scientific specimens when it became obvious they had become rare. Fuller, author of two previous books on extinct birds, discusses every nuance of what is known about these birds. Chapters on the birds' appearance, taxonomy, natural history, and final extermination in 1844 are very thorough. The surviving 80 stuffed specimens, 75 eggs, and miscellaneous mummies, skeletons, and other parts are each described individually. In many cases, the specimens have had a checkered history, which can make for interesting reading and speculation about the vagaries of private and museum collecting. The numerous illustrations depict most of the specimens and a very large sampling of artists' renditions of the auk, many old enough to have been done from life. A sad commentary is that no description or picture of an auk chick exists. Probably the last word on the great auk, this beautiful book is highly recommended for libraries with large bird collections and those within the former nesting range of the auk. --Nancy Bent

Publisher's Weekly Review

Three hundred years ago, for a few weeks each year, Icelandic seafarers could marvel at hordes of great auks as they waddled ashore. By 1850, the bird was extinct. Painter and amateur natural historian Fuller (The Lost Birds of Paradise) has produced a weighty and beautiful tome on the auk (also known as the garefowl), its natural history and its posthumous life in the human imagination. The auk's head alone merits, and receives, several pages of images and explanations: a grooved, fish-shaped beak, hazel eyes and a patch of white between them gave the bird an awkward, forlorn dignity--while its upright walk made it rare visual kin to the penguin. Unable to flee marauding Icelanders, the last known pair of auks were killed for food on a tiny island in 1844. After its extinction, the auk became improbably famous among urbane 19th-century readers, who made it (along with the dodo) a byword for extinction. Stuffed auks and auk eggs (and fakes of both) sold for high sums, while trading cards, cigarettes and whiskey bore the name and image of the dead bird. Fuller devotes about half his volume to a verbal and pictorial catalogue of the 78 known stuffed great auks, along with the 75 surviving eggs. Among the shorter sections are two describing the islands and the people who matter most to the garefowls' sad story. Over 200 color and 200 black and white illustrations include paintings, engravings and photographs of stuffed models displaying the enigmatic species. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The great auk, or "penguin of the north," is nearly as well known in the annals of extinction as the dodo and passenger pigeon. A flightless bird, it lived in large colonies--a habit that was apparently necessary to its survival. Native to a narrow range of islands near the Arctic circle, the birds were easy prey, hunted for their meat, eggs, oil, and feathers. Nearing extinction, the auks became valuable to collectors for their eggs and skin, and the last birds were collected in 1844. Fuller, who has written two other books on extinct birds, documents the auk's decline, including a grueling account of the killing of the last two. He offers many reprints of fine artwork depicting the birds plus hundreds of photographs of stuffed specimens, skeletons, eggs, artwork, and collectibles. Fuller's work presents a model study and photohistory of an extinction event and postevent memorabilia. For academic and public library biology collections. [For another account of the great auk's demise, see Christopher Cokinos's Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, LJ 2/15/00.--Ed.]--Tim McKimmie, New Mexico State Univ. Lib., Las Cruces (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is a comprehensive account of much of the known historical information concerning the great auk, a large, flightless, penguin-like bird, now extinct. The fate of few vanished species have been traced in much detail. Tradition has it that the last two great auks seen alive were found on June 3, 1844, when three Icelandic fishermen, part of a 14-man expedition, killed them on the remote Icelandic island of Eldey. The two specimens, anxiously awaited by the Danish merchant who had commissioned this hunting trip, never reached him. Some of their internal organs, however, do survive in the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen. In his fascinating and profusely illustrated volume, Fuller, a painter and author, explores this and other curious mysteries concerning this unfortunate bird. All known museum specimens of auk bird skins, skeletons, and surviving eggs are described, as are many individuals who analyzed its life history or contributed in other ways to what is known about this species. Several mounted auks known to have been lost more than a century and a half ago also receive attention. In addition, Fuller discusses the habitats, archaeologic evidence, and prehistory of this bird. Very useful bibliography. General readers; undergraduates through professionals. K. B. Sterling; Pace University



Chapter One THE GREAT AUK'S APPEARANCE     An ancient mariner ... with a white waistcoat, a black `beetle coat,' an ugly nose and a helpless pair of arms.     An anonymous correspondent to a London newspaper (1902) The Great Auk, black and white, hugely beaked and shaped rather like a Penguin, could hardly be confused with any living bird. Its upright stance separates it from the vast majority of birds, its enormous beak marks it out from any Penguin and its overall size - around 30 inches (75 cm) - removes it from its superficially similar relative the Razorbill ( Alca torda ).     The sexes were, apparently, identical (although it is possible that slight external differences existed) but the plumage was subject to some seasonal change.     In winter the birds were at sea and seldom seen so it is the summer plumage that is most familiar. In this feathering the upperparts and the head were black, apart from a large white patch before each eye. The upper throat and sides of the neck were also black but here the feathers were usually tinged with chocolate brown. The wings were black with the tips of the secondary feathers white. The lower parts from throat to under tail coverts were white with most individuals showing a distinctive fringe of grey feathers on the flanks below the wings.     It is possible to give more detail to this description. The Great Auk's head was dominated by the huge, grotesque beak, a striking appendage quite unlike the bill of any Penguin and an object that sets these birds apart as profoundly different creatures. Yet the exact appearance of this beak in life is uncertain. Its colour in the living bird was never precisely or unequivocally reported, and preserved specimens don't necessarily provide a reliable guide. Because the colours on a bird's bill are subject to fading or other alteration after death, taxidermists and preparators regularly paint this part- often accurately, sometimes imaginatively. There is little doubt that the Great Auk's beak was dark in colour - blackish- with varying numbers of grooves (as many as twelve as few as three) on each side of the mandible, a variation usually explained as an indicator of age. In many of the surviving mounted specimens the grooves are marked with white but it remains uncertain how much if any) of this colour is natural and how much is simply paint. Several nineteenth century commentators, men who handled specimens when they were comparatively fresh (most notably J.H. Gurney, 1869), were convinced that at least some of the pigment was natural. On the other hand, a number of early descriptions make no mention of any white on the beak. Perhaps this too was a variable feature. There is a certain natural elegance in the notion that - during the breeding season - the bill carried some white striping (as it does in the Razorbill) but the truth is that no-one really knows whether it did or not.     The colour of the rather small eve is another feature that went largely undescribed although, fortunately, there are at least two unequivocal records of it. During the early 1820's, a Scottish professor by the name of Fleming was able to observe a captive bird and described the iris as chestnut with the margin of each eyelid black. Sigridur Thorláksdótter, an Icelandic fishwife who in 1831 handled 23 freshly killed birds and saw one alive, said the eyes were hazel.     Many of the Icelandic fishermen who captured birds on the reefs and skerries off south-west Iceland mentioned a peculiar film or membrane that covered the eyes as the birds emerged from the water. Doubtless this is the feature known to bird anatomists as the nictitating membrane. The Icelanders called it the bladka and some of them described it as blue and white in colour. Probably, the words `blue and white' result from translation difficulties (the men's observations were noted down during conversations with two Englishmen, Alfred Newton and John Wolley); perhaps a light blue was meant, although grey would be a more usual colour for this particular feature.     According to Sigridur Thorláksdótter, the inside of the mouth was brightly coloured; she recalled it as `light red.' Professor Fleming described it as orange, but perhaps the discrepancy is again due to linguistic difficulties. The possibility of some sort of reddish colour about the head may explain one of the mysteries of Great Auk literature. A certain Martin Martin wrote a late seventeenth century account of Great Auks on St Kilda, an account that perhaps resulted from a direct encounter with living birds. In an otherwise straightforward description he mentioned that the birds were `red around the eyes,' a remark that has perplexed generations of Garefowl scholars. John Smith (1879) was the first to suggest that Martin, perhaps watching from a distance, saw birds opening and closing their beaks. The gape would reach behind and below the eyes and the bright colour perhaps misled Mr. Martin. Another early account suggests that the colour of the mouth's interior was yellow, however. In an unpublished manuscript kept today at the University Museum, Copenhagen, Otto Fabricius, author of Fauna Groenlandica (1780), is quite specific on this point. What, then, can be made of these differing accounts? It seems safest to assume that the colour was in reality a yellowy orange and that Sigridur Thodláksdótter's description of `light red' rests on a linguistic misunderstanding. What Martin Martin saw remains a mystery.     On each side of the face, immediately behind the upper mandible, was a large lozenge-shaped patch of velvety textured white feathers that just touched the leading edge of the eye. Together with the dramatic outline of the beak and the small eye, this gives to the head a completely distinctive appearance.     Many of the preserved specimens (but not all) show a rich brown that suffuses the blackish feathering of the sides of the face and neck. Whether this colouring is a mark of older birds or has some sexual significance is not known.     The wings were tiny in proportion to the size of the body yet they remained entirely wing-like in character having no similarity to the Penguin's flippery appendages; the stunted primary feathers were thin and pointed. The colour was black, although the secondaries were rather strikingly tipped with white.     The underparts from throat to tail were white but most preserved specimens show a distinctive fringe of longer feathers on the flanks. These feathers are coloured with a subtly pale shade of grey - almost lilac - and extend in a band from just below the wing right down to the tail. A few existing specimens lack this grey fringe, but what this means is unclear. Walter Rothschild (1907) believed this lilac grey shade to be a female characteristic but his reasons for this supposition are not known. Interestingly, Peter Lyngs (see British Birds , 1996, 89, 10, p.453) has noted a similar feature on Razorbills in the Baltic. Some 20% of a colony he investigated were marked with grey but he was unable to relate the colour to sex or to age. He makes the curious point that (as is almost the case with the Great Auk) he has never seen this Razorbill characteristic depicted or mentioned elsewhere.     The tail, consisting of fourteen feathers, was short but pointed, black above and white below.     The webbed feet were black and placed far back on the body. The tarsus was short. There were three toes - with a hind toe wanting - each with a rather small claw.     The ear apertures were very small, covered with feathers and stood in line with the opening of the beak at the back end of each cheek. The nostrils were at the rear of the beak and were elongated in shape running into a deep furrow. The tongue, according to Fabricius, was small, flat and shaped like a sword's blade.     In winter the birds underwent a plumage change similar to that experienced by their relatives the Guillemot ( Uria aalge ) and the Razorbill. The black of the foreneck and chin was replaced by white and the lozenge-shaped white patch between eye and beak disappeared.     The appearance of the chick is unknown and so too are any juvenile changes in plumage. Average measurements Length 75cm - 80cm Culmen 85cmm Bill depth 40mm Wing 160mm Tail 75mm Tarsus 58mm Middle toe 70mm Copyright © 1999 Errol Fuller. All rights reserved.