Society is to blame…

At the end of each episode of his show Denton in the mid 1990’s, Andrew Denton would say “And remember society is to blame.” Basically, this statement sums up the idea that human beings are capable of doing anything when experiencing extenuating circumstances – even if it is immoral or illegal – for people have expectations in their lives. When we hear of a desperate father robbing a bank for example to send his child to university, people are not surprised to hear that he is poor, violent or non-white. Some people would not even blame the father to resorting to this action, as he is obviously more disadvantaged than others. Hence, society must be to blame!

I could not help but think of this adage this morning, when reading about the plight of the Great Auk – a large, flightless bird that became extinct in the mid-19th century. In fact, it was on this day in 1844 that the last two confirmed specimens of this beautiful bird were killed off the coast of Iceland.

But before I get into the details of how and why these birds were killed, let me introduce this bird to you. Below are snippets from Wikipedia.

The Great Auk was known to bred on rocky, isolated islands with easy access to both the ocean and food supply. These requirements for breeding were a rarity in nature, providing only a few breeding sites for the auks. The Great Auk was 75 to 85 centimetres tall and weighed around 5 kilograms. It had a black back and a white belly. It’s black beak was hooked with grooves on its surface. During summer, the Great Auk had a white patch over each eye, which had a hazel or chestnut iris. During winter, the auk lost this patch while molting, instead developing a white band stretching between the eyes. Great Auk pairs mated for life. They were known to nest in extremely dense and social colonies, laying one egg a year between late May and early June on bare rock. Both parents incubated for about six weeks before their young hatched.

Great Auks walked slowly and sometimes used their wings to help them traverse rough terrain. They had few natural predators, mainly large marine mammals, such as the Orca, and White-Tailed Eagles. Polar bears preyed on nesting colonies of the auk. Humans hunted the Great Auk for more than 100,000 years. It was an important part of many Native American cultures, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. Early European explorers to the Americas used the auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird’s down was in high demand in Europe and used to make pillows, a factor which largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon began to realize that the Great Auk was disappearing and it became the beneficiary of many early environmental laws, but this proved not to be enough. Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird. These birds are believed to have had a life span of about 20 to 25 years.

A horrifying account by Aaron Thomas of HMS Boston from 1794 described how the bird had been systematically slaughtered:

“If you come for their Feathers you do not give yourself the trouble of killing them, but lay hold of one and pluck the best of the Feathers. You then turn the poor Penguin adrift, with his skin half-naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure. This is not a very humane method but it is the common practice. While you abide on this island you are in the constant practice of horrid cruelties for you not only skin them Alive, but you burn them Alive also to cook their Bodies with. You take a kettle with you into which you put a Penguin or two, you kindle a fire under it, and this fire is absolutely made of the unfortunate Penguins themselves. Their body’s being oily soon produce a Flame; there is no wood on the island.”

My heart cries when I hear this. I can only imagine the cries of the Auks. But it gets worse!

The last colony of Great Auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the “Great Auk Rock”) off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey, which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collection birds from the colony.

The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on request from a merchant who wanted specimens, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot.Great Auk specialist John Wolley interviewed the two men who killed the last birds and Ísleifsson described the heart-breaking act as follows:

“They walked slowly. Jón Brandsson crept up with his arms open. The bird that Jón got went into a corner but [mine] was going to the edge of the cliff. [I] caught it close to the edge – a precipice many fathoms deep. The black birds were flying off. I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings. He made no cry. I strangled him.”

Today, 78 skins of the Great Auk remain mostly in museum collections, along with around 75 eggs and 24 complete skeletons. No hatchling specimens exist. The eyes and internal organs of the last two birds from 1844 are stored in the Zoological Museum, Copenhagen. It is uncertain where their skins are located today!

Following the bird’s extinction, remains of the Great Auk increased dramatically in value, and auctions of specimens created intense interest in Britain, where 15 specimens are now located, which is the largest number of any country. A specimen was bought in 1971 by the Icelandic Museum of National History for the sum of £9000, which placed it in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive stuffed bird ever sold. The present whereabouts of six of the eggs are unknown, and several other eggs have been accidentally destroyed!! Two mounted skins were destroyed in the 20th century, one in the Mainz Museum and one in the Museo Bocage, Lisbon.

When I think of the last two known specimens, nesting ALONE, instead of within a colony, and three men coming up to them, strangling them and then SMASHING THE LAST EVER EGG which would have been hatched within weeks – I get so angry! I would much prefer to see birds alive and enjoying nature than stuffed in a bloody collection or at a museum. The fact that no hatchling specimens of the Great Auk exist and that eggs have been accidentally destroyed, yet one man felt it was okay to smash the last known embryo at the Great Auk – for no particular reason other than he could – just leaves me shaking my head.

Humans are meant to be the smartest of the specimens, right? I am disgusted by what human beings do to nature and even other people because of money or power. This has got me thinking about what I can do to improve current situations……