Once, flocks of great auks nested on the rocks
off the coast of the North Atlantic. The first bird
to be called a penguin, they were built to swim,
but slow, defenseless on land. Pairs mated for life,
nesting shoulder to shoulder in dense rookeries,
laying one egg on bare rock, taking turns tending
the egg until it hatched. Devoted parents, they cared
for their young even after they’d fledged;
adults were seen swimming, chicks perched
on their backs. In those days, a sighting of great auks
quickened a sailor’s heart, signaled landfall ahead.
Their end came when the Europeans’ love for featherbeds
brought hunters in search of down (after every eider
had been plucked, gone). To loosen their plumage,
auks were boiled in cauldrons over fires fed with the oil
of auks killed before them, since there was little wood to be found.
the last nesting colony on Geirfuglasker, great auk rock.
Refugees, the auks moved to the island of Eldey. There,
on July 3, 1844, the last pair was killed by hunters
gathering specimens for a museum. Here’s how one hunter
described the scene: I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings.
He made no cry. I strangled him.
Note: Great auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds, and Sigurour Ísleifsson described the act; the words in italics are his.
“Great Auk” originally appeared in Passings, first published by Expedition Press in 2016 and reprinted by Wandering Aengus Press in 2019.