Who Killed the Great Auk?

Front Cover
Oxford University Press, 2000 - Nature - 227 pages
The Great Auk is one of the world's most famous extinct birds. It was undoubtedly a most curious creature: a flightless bird with tiny wings, it stood upright like a human, and sported an enormous beak. On land, the Great Auk was clumsy and awkward, but it was perfectly adapted for swift andefficient movement in the sea, where it spent the large part of the year. In its heyday, it populated the North Atlantic, from Western Europe across to North America, and was a familiar sight to islanders and coastal dwellers when, each May, it would climb ashore for the short breeding season. Yetby the mid-nineteenth century sightings of the bird were but rare occurrences, and just a few decades later even the most assiduous Victorian explorers could not find it. So what happened to the Great Auk? What - or who - caused it to disappear from the northern oceans? Jeremy A. Gaskell draws oneyewitness accounts spanning some four centuries to relate the tale of the Great Auk's extinction. He tells how the Great Auk was hunted by sailors, coastal dwellers, and merchants for its ample flesh, its eggs, and its soft down. He shows how the fate of the Great Auk was inextricably bound up withthe prevailing social, economic, and political conditions of the late 18th century. It was also a result of widespread scientific misapprehensions about the nature and geographical range of this mysterious seabird. The disappearance of the Great Auk had a considerable impact on the publicimagination of the late 19th Century. Specimens of the birds or their eggs soon began to fetch astronomical prices among collectors. Charles Kingsley used the last Great Auk as a character in The Water Babies. It became the stuff of legend. More importantly, its plight keenly interested a number ofgreat Victorian ornithologists, men like John Wolley, Alfred Newton, and John James Audubon. Later, these self-same men were to cause some of the very first legislation on seabird protection to come into place. As a result this is also the story of the beginnings of bird conservation. Thisintriguing book takes the reader on a tour of some of the wildest and coldest places on earth, in its attempt to uncover the history of the last days of the Great Auk. We travel with Audubon to Labrador, sail to the remote Scottish island of St Kilda, experience the hardship of life in the coloniesof Newfoundland, and follow the peregrinations of intrepid naturalists as they put to sea in search of the very last of the Great Auks. The text is enhanced by numerous maps, photographs, and line drawings, and includes a fine original colour frontispiece by Jan Wilczur.

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Who killed the great auk?

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The Great Auk was a large, penguin-like seabird of the North Atlantic. Being flightless, it was easily exploited for its meat, eggs, and feathers, until by the 1840s it was extinct. The haunting story ... Read full review


List of illustrations x
The Icelandic bird skerries
Travels with Audubon in Labrador
A visit to Funk Island
Wild foulis biggand the Great Auk on St Kilda
Uncouth regions
In search of the Great Auk
Last appearances
a pressing need

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About the author (2000)

Jeremy A. Gaskell, c/o A M Gaskell, Lyndale, Luxborough, Watchet, Somerset, TA23 0SJ impennis44@hotmail.com Jeremy Gaskell's interest in the Great Auk dates from his teens, when he first planned a visit to its traditional breeding grounds in Iceland. An active ornithologist, he has travelledas far afield as Thailand, and has also acquired extensive knowledge of the birds of the Middle East. He is the author of a number of articles and academic papers on subjects as diverse as the early history of British ornithology, and seabird identification. In 1998 he broadcast a history of theGreat Auk on the BBC World Service.

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