The Bizarre Story of Britain’s Last Great Auk

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Great Auk: Nature Picture Library, Alamy. Hat, storm: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Great Auk: Nature Picture Library, Alamy. Hat, storm: iStock.

Sailing near the remote Scottish island of St Kilda, Laughlan McKinnon sighted a strange bird napping on a rocky sea stack. It didn’t resemble most other birds he'd seen near these waters. It wasn’t a gull or a puffin. Plump and tuxedoed, it stood 3 feet tall and had comedically short 6-inch wings.

Today, a casual observer could be forgiven for confusing the bird, a great auk, for a penguin. The black-and-white creature was clumsy on land but a torpedo in the sea. It feasted on fish and had a low, croaking scream. It was flightless, monogamous, and nested in some of the world’s iciest, and most rugged, territory. In fact, the auk lent its name to modern penguins: Its scientific name was Pinguinus impennis. When early explorers discovered flightless birds in the southern hemisphere, they called the creatures penguins because of their resemblance to the great auk. (The birds, however, are biologically unrelated.)

For centuries, great auks occupied the chilly islands near Iceland, Greenland, and northern Scotland. According to Samantha Galasso at Smithsonian, an 18th century sailor wrote that Newfoundland’s Funk Island was so congested with auks that “a man could not go ashore upon those islands without boots, for otherwise they would spoil his legs, that they were entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.”

Which is to say the birds were easy to kill. Great auks had no fear of humans; a person could easily walk up to a bird and strangle it—and many did. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote that he was able to fill two boatloads of dead auks in just half an hour. He compared the activity to packing a ship with stones.

An auk, after all, was worth more dead than alive. Locals valued its meat, which fishermen used as food and bait. Sailors coveted the oil rendered from the bird’s fat. Pillow-makers prized the auk's feathers. By the 16th century, the bird’s population had plummeted so quickly that conservation laws were written to protect it. By the 1770s, the island of St. John's in Canada had outlawed feather- and egg-collecting and penalized criminals with public floggings. But that didn’t stop people from killing the birds: As the population of great auks dropped, the profits to be made only increased.

So when Laughlan McKinnon saw an auk around July 1840, it's likely he and his two companions had money on their minds. For an unknown reason, however, they made the unusual decision to take the bird alive: One of the men, Malcolm MacDonald, approached the snoozing bird, snagged it by the neck, and lassoed its legs together. Unsurprisingly, the auk woke and began to wail. And as the bird screamed, rain began to fall.

The men decided to wait out the storm in a small hut called a bothy, and they took the bird inside with them. One day passed. Then a second. Rain and wind continued to roar, and the swelling waves prevented the men from returning to their boats and heading home. By day three, the men, still cooped up in the bothy with the bird, were likely starting to go stir crazy. Adding to their headache was the bird itself, which kept screaming whenever anybody approached it.

Finally, as the story goes, the fishermen concluded that there was only one cause for their bad luck: The bird was no bird at all. It was a storm-conjuring witch.

And there was only one way to deal with a weather-controlling witch: They had to kill it. According to one account, the men beat the auk with two large stones (others say they used sticks) until it was lifeless. Decades later, historians learned that this bird was likely the last great auk in Great Britain.

Within five years, the last breeding pair of the species would suffer a similar—though less superstitious—fate. On the island of Eldey near Iceland, a mating pair of auks was strangled to death by a group of fishermen. At that moment, the female bird had been incubating an egg. As the men struggled to kill the auk, one of the fishermen stomped on the egg with his boot, effectively crushing the future of the species along with it.

How to Clean Your Dog's Ears (and How Often You Should Be Doing It)

iStock/Group4 Studio
iStock/Group4 Studio

When it comes to keeping our dogs looking their best, we usually do all the normal pampering—giving them baths, cutting their nails, brushing their teeth, and grooming their fur. But one task that often gets overlooked is cleaning their ears.

Ear infections are a common ailment in dogs—particularly in breeds that have long, droopy ears (like cocker spaniels or basset hounds) or those that grow hair in their ear canals (as poodles do). A foul or yeasty odor in the ears is one quick way to tell if your pup might have an ear infection; redness and discharge, or frequent head-shaking or scratching, are some other signs that there might be an issue. If your dog seems to be in pain or cries when you touch around their ears, you'll want to schedule an appointment with your vet for as soon as possible.

Even if your dog doesn't seem prone to ear infections, it's important to keep their ears clean in order to keep it that way. According to Dogster, you should be cleaning your dog's ears anywhere from once a week to once a month, depending on the breed. Your vet can give you a recommendation for how often you should be cleaning your pup's ears, and even a quick lesson on how to do it yourself at home.

If you're uncomfortable undertaking the task on your own, your vet can do it for you—as can a dog groomer. But if you want to give it a try on your own, it's actually pretty simple. All you really need are some cotton balls and a vet-approved ear cleaner (your vet may sell one, or be able to tell you the nearest pet supply store or website that does).

According to Dogster, you should apply the dog cleaner to your dog's ear with a cotton ball or gauze. Squeeze a bit down the ear so that it makes its way into the ear canal, then gently massage the dog's ears near the base in order to break down any debris and/or ear wax. If your dog needs to shake their head, let them. Then, use the cotton ball or gauze to wipe the inside of the ear clean. (It may take a few swipes to clean the ear out fully.)

Though you may be tempted to use a cotton swab, just as with your own ears, this is a bad idea. "I generally don’t like to put Q-tips down the ears because I don’t like to push stuff down," Dr. Jeff Grognet, co-owner of Mid-Isle Veterinary Hospital in Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada, told Dogster. "This dilutes the ointment, but also, in some cases, the ointment doesn’t even get through to the skin inside the ear."

Cleaning your dog's ears is definitely easy, and important enough that there's no excuse not to make it a part of your regular grooming routine.

10 Fun Facts About Corgis

iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya
iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya

You already know they’re cute, compact, and smart. But there’s a lot more to these beloved little dogs that you might not know. 

1. THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT BREEDS OF CORGIS.

There are two types of Welsh corgis: the Pembroke Welsh corgi and the Cardigan Welsh corgi. They are considered two entirely different breeds because they come from different ancestors. Their remarkable resemblance is a result of crossbreeding in the 19th century.   

If you’re trying to tell the two breeds apart, the most notable difference is that the Pembroke does not have a tail. On top of a tail, Cardigan Welsh corgis also have rounded ears, while Pembrokes generally have pointy ears. 

2. THE CARDIGAN WELSH CORGI IS THE OLDER BREED.

Photo of a Welsh Corgi Cardigan
iStock/Silense

A warrior tribe of Celts brought the corgis in their aboriginal form to Cardiganshire, Wales around 1200 BCE, which means corgis have been in Wales for over 3000 years. This early breed was a member of the Teckel family of dogs that went on to include the dachshund. 

3. PEMBROKE WELSH CORGIS HAVE A CONSIDERABLE HISTORY AS WELL.

welsh Corgi Pembroke sitting in autumn leaves
iStock/HelenaQueen

Although no one knows for sure, most agree that the Pembroke Welsh corgi dates back to 1107 CE when Flemish weavers migrated to Wales. The Spitz-type dog bred with the original Cardigan corgis to produce the Pembroke Welsh corgis we know today. 

4. THE KENNEL CLUB ORIGINALLY LUMPED THE TWO BREEDS TOGETHER.

The two types of corgis were registered as one in 1925, leading to a lot of stress among breeders. Often a judge would favor one breed over the other, which would lead to controversies at dog shows. After nearly a decade of (pretty adorable) strife, the breeds gained separate recognition in 1934. 

5. CORGIS WERE ORIGINALLY USED AS HERDERS.


iStock

The Welsh used the short dogs as herders as early as the 10th century. In those days, pastures were considered common land, so there were no fences. In order to keep a farmer’s cattle together and separated from other herds, corgis would nip at their legs to herd them. Because of their closeness to the ground, corgis had easy access to the cows’ ankles and were difficult targets of the retaliatory kicks of cattle. 

6. ACCORDING TO WELSH LEGEND, FAIRIES RIDE THEM.

Some say that the corgi is an “enchanted dog” favored by fairies and elves. At night the magical creatures would use the dogs to pull their carriages and be their steeds in battle. According to legend, the markings on a corgi’s coat suggest the faint outline of a saddle and harness. 

7. THE ROYAL FAMILY LOVES THE PEMBROKE WELSH CORGI.


Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II has had more than 30 corgis in her lifetime. Though her last two corgis—Whisper and Willow—have both recently passed away, she does still have two dorgis (corgi/dachshund mixes) named Candy and Vulcan.

The Queen met her first corgi when King George VI brought a male pooch home from a kennel in 1933. Named Dookie, the dog was an immediate hit with the future queen and her sister, Princess Margaret. 

After a second corgi named Jane entered the picture, the canine couple had a litter of puppies, two of which were kept. The Queen received another dog named Susan for her 18th birthday—from there, the collection of corgis really gained momentum. Some of the royal corgis bred with Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin to create dorgis.

8. CORGIS WERE USED TO PREDICT PRINCESS CHARLOTTE'S NAME.

In the spring of 2015, when Prince William and Kate Middleton were awaiting the birth of their second child, people are already taking bets on the name. Gambling company Ladbrokes used corgis in an attempt to predict what the name would be. The company’s ad featured 10 corgis wearing vests with different names in a race to predict what the name of the child would be. The corgi sporting the name Alexandra won the race. Princess Charlotte was born on May 2, 2015.

9. CORGI MEANS "DWARF DOG" IN WELSH.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cor means dwarf and gi means dog.  

10. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOSTS A ENORMOUS CORGI MEETUP.


iStock

SoCal Corgi Beach Day started as a humble meet-up event at Huntington Beach in 2012. The first event attracted just 15 dogs; the last one had more than 1100 corgis in attendance. The event happens three times a year.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

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