Remembering the last great auks

Today our blog is provided by journalist and wildlife expert Kenny Taylor.

A noted author Kenny has written for BBC Wildlife and National Geographic as well as our very own The Nature of Scotland. His piece focuses on the last bird to become extinct in Scotland – the Greak Auk.

Kenny was inspired to pen the piece after he attended an event on Papa Westray, where the locals were joined by visiting scientists, musicians, a videographer and others to mark the bicentennial of the death of the last Orcadian great auk.

Stunning cliff scenery on Orkney

Stunning cliff scenery on Orkney

It’s the closest anyone has come to experiencing the real thing in nearly 170 years. Here on Papa Westray, in Orkney’s northern isles, make that two centuries. As the bird turns, you can see the detail of individual feathers; notice the grooves on its dark beak; see the contrasts of black back and white chest.

But it’s a beautiful mirage – a visual echo of something that’s stored hundreds of miles from here, in the vaults of the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) bird room in Tring. What I’m watching is a video installation, brainchild of NHM scientist Jo Cooper, created by Brian McClave of 3-D film-makers Site-Eye.

It shows the last great auk ever known on Orkney, killed on Papay by local man William Foulis, as a contract-hit for a southern exhibiter of natural curiosities. Tonight, as Orcadian band Hullion (some sporting hats in the shape of great auk heads) plays downstairs in the Papay Community Centre, its image rotates in a small room above.

People file in, don 3-D viewing glasses and watch. The room is dark, save for the bright image on screen. There’s a respectful quiet, punctuated by the occasional half-whispered comment.

The bird shown, killed here in 1813, was the lone survivor of the very last pair known in Britain. Thirty-one years later, the last great auks of all were killed on Eldey, an islet off the south coast of Iceland.

The great auk monument, Reykjanes. Iceland

The great auk monument, Reykjanes. Iceland

Eldey is a fuzzy lump on the horizon when viewed from the Reykjanes Peninsula – a dot that disappears rapidly in the fogs that can swirl along this wild coast. A few weeks after leaving Papay, I see it in the half-light of a south Icelandic summer night, on a visit here with my daughter. As waves crash against dark rocks nearby, Eldey appears and fades and re-appears to the south.

Once, the great auk was so numerous in parts of the North Atlantic (the only ocean it ever knew as home) that the flocks on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks were marked on charts as navigation aids. Once, people harvested the big, flightless birds by the tens of thousands for meat, feathers and oil, sometimes literally ripping or burning what they needed from the still-living creatures. Once, this was the finest diving seabird North Atlantic people had ever known.

A trio of men, hired by a merchant who wanted specimens, cornered the last pair on Eldey. One crushed their egg with his boot. Then the adults were killed. “I took him by the neck,” said one of the men of the last bird, “and he flapped his wings.”

“He made no cry. I strangled him.”

There’s a matter-of-fact banality about that statement. Just another killing by someone used to killing many birds and fish every year to earn a living; to survive.

But the silence he describes is haunting: nothing, and then nothing more. Extinction. We stand beside the Reykjanes monument to those last birds – a statue of a great auk staring out to Eldey. Waves crash. It’s cold.

The island fades from view. We turn, slowly, and go.

NB – The last great auk in Scotland was killed on Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, and the very last northern hemisphere penguin was killed on Eldey, Iceland in 1844

As part of The Year of Natural Scotland, Kenny co-wrote the ‘Infinite Scotland’, website, app and theatre production, funded by SNH and Creative Scotland .

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