Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Blogging Challenge Day 2: A Farewall 'Auk' to the Great Auk

Penguins in the UK? Nah, most people would say. Yet there were penguins there, till about 200 years ago. The Great Auk.
A flightless bird with no natural fear of humans, who was very picky in where they lived (only rocky islands, please, somewhere in the northern hemisphere, must be isolated, must have a plentiful food supply, oh and must not be near polar bears) some might say that this bird was not destined to survive. It's been around for ages: there's evidence of them being eaten by Neanderthals, and in a 20,000 year old cave painting in Spain they are depicted. So, I would say to 'some' people, these birds had survived for a long time. They didn't lack survival instincts.
We killed them, not natural selection.
There's a long tradition of Great Auk hunting in some Native American cultures: it was a cultural icon. They ate it, too. Another extinct race, the Beothuks also made a practice of eating them. At their peak, Great Auk numbers were estimated in the millions so it's no wonder they were a popular food source.'s also a bad survival trait as a bird to have very soft feathers. Unfortunately, the Great Auk did, and it was hunted for its down, since it was so soft. Some used eider for a while but then on that island their numbers grew low and they fell back on the reliable Great Auk. Of course. And European settlers were no less discriminatory. One expedition, running out of food, simply herded a huge flock of Great Auk onto the boat and slaughtered them mercilessly. They were easy food for the starving. Why wouldn't they kill them? And as they grew rarer, so did their popularity with collectors. And so there was yet another person hunting them, the eager man ready for some easy money.
With all odds against it, what was there to do?
The last Great Auk in the British Isles was captured by villagers in Scotland. After keeping it for a couple days, a huge storm rose up, and believing the Auk to have waved a magic wand of doom and created it, they executed it for being a witch. Talk about dumb reasons to make a species extinct.
In the Americas, the last Great Auks were killed by ón Brandsson, Sigurður Ísleifsson, and Ketill Ketilsson for a merchant wanting to show off this rarity. I won't tell you their story. Let them.
"The rocks were covered with blackbirds and there were the Geirfugles ... 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."-Sigurður Ísleifsson, as told to John Wolley, Great Auk specialist
Ketill Ketilsson ground his boot into the last Great Auk egg and crushed it. Currently, a preserved Great Auk egg sells for 11 times the amount a skilled worker earns in a year.
Remember the Great Auk. See its story as a representation of the ruthlessness of humans if you will. See it as a reminder of how we need to redeem ourselves. I don't care. Remember, though. Remember.
The Glasswing Butterfly
P.S. Sorry for such a long post, and probably a depressing one too. I'll try to keep it short next time.

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