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.

20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins

iStock.com/Mlenny
iStock.com/Mlenny

Who is a penguin's favorite family member? Aunt Arctica! 

We kid! But seven of the 17 species of penguins can be found on the southernmost continent. Here are 20 more fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds. 

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

A group of penguins on an iceberg.
iStock/axily

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

Three emperor penguins
iStock/Fabiano_Teixeira

3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

A gentoo penguin swimming underwater
iStock/chameleonseye

4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

Penguins swimming in the ocean
iStock/USO

5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Emperor penguins with chicks
iStock/vladsilver

6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

Gentoo penguin chick molting
iStock/ChristianWilkinson

8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to one thousand birds.

A colony of king penguins
iStock/DurkTalsma

9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

Two chinstrap penguins
iStock/Legacy-Images

10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

Magellanic penguin nesting in the ground
iStock/JeremyRichards

11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

Penguin eggs
iStock/Buenaventuramariano

12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

A group of emperor penguins and chick
iStock/vladsilver

13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

Penguin chick and parent on a nest
iStock/golnyk

14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

Three emperor penguin chicks
iStock/AntAntarctic

15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

Gentoo penguins
iStock/Goddard_Photography

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

A group of magellanic penguins on the seacoast
iStock/encrier

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

A cape penguin in South Africa
iStock/ziggy_mars

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

Man videotaping a penguin in Antarctica
iStock/Bkamprath

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

Penguin swimming in the ocean
iStock/Musat

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

This story was first published in 2017.

Aspiring Eagle Scout Is Turning Old Fire Hoses Into Hammocks for Big Cats

iStock.com/tane-mahuta
iStock.com/tane-mahuta

Boy Scouts have to demonstrate skills in multiple areas to graduate to the rank of Eagle Scout. On his quest to reach the top rank in scouting, eighth-grader Payton Crawford is doing something that's unusual for the organization: Knitting hammocks for senior big cats out of old fire hoses, CBS Denver reports.

For his Eagle Scout project, the 11-year-old boy from Colorado wanted to help the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. The nonprofit rescues large carnivores from abusive situations and gives them a new home in a 10,000-acre wildlife refuge. There are more than 500 animals living at the site.

When they're not roaming the sanctuary, older big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards will be able to lounge on Crawford's supportive hammocks. He gathered old hoses from fire departments, cut them into the desired lengths, and wove them into hammocks big enough to accommodate a variety of animals. He can make one himself in about two hours, but he needs help carrying the final product.

“It’s just something different that I wanted to try out,” he told CBS. “Give them a better life because they don’t have the luxury we do.”

You can see how Crawford put them together in the video below.

[h/t CBS Denver]

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