Newfoundlandia: What Made the Great Auk so Great?

There are written reports describing how incredibly delicious the birds were, that they were the most exquisite food on Earth, or the best meat in this world or any other. So ravenously were they consumed that one ornithologist described the Funk Islands as North America’s first fast food restaurant.

There is a frailty inherent in human thought. A strain of creeping fatalism which softly whispers away actions. “Don’t worry,” it says. “It’s ok, your actions are so small, you can’t possibly affect the wider world.”

This frailty is continually exploited by the need of now. I need food, clothing, shelter, money now, the world suffers, and sadly the Great Auk went extinct.

The earliest people to call this place home were buried with Great Auk bones.

There is magic in the knowledge that at one point there existed a type of penguin around the shores of Newfoundland. That our forebears heard them, saw them swim and launch themselves out of the water up to high rock ledges as we’re told they did.

Great Auks and penguins are separate species, but also one of the finest examples of convergent evolution. They arrived at exactly the same point in Nature, exploiting the same environmental niche in precisely the same way.

In fact, so fantastically similar were Great Auks to modern penguins that when European experts first encountered penguins they named them after the Great Auk, whose scientific name is Pinguinus Impennis.

Our province’s connection to this bird is an ancient one. The very earliest people to call this place home were buried with Great Auk bones. One grave in Port Au Choix contained over 200 Great Auk beaks, the remains of what is thought to have been an elaborate fur cloak.

The Beothuk made a pudding from Great Auk eggs and our earliest European ancestors were accompanied on the Grand Banks by Great Auks, whose presence signified that they had arrived at good fishing grounds.

The largest colony around the shores of Newfoundland was by far the Funk Islands, an enormous colony of well over 200,000 birds. From the time Europeans knew of Newfoundland, every sailing ship made a pilgrimage to the Funk Islands to gorge themselves.

There are written reports describing how incredibly delicious the birds were, that they were the most exquisite food on Earth, or the best meat in this world or any other. So ravenously were they consumed that one ornithologist described the Funk Islands as North America’s first fast food restaurant.

But by the year 1800, the buffet was over, the Great Auk had disappeared from Newfoundland, and one of the most massive seabird colonies on Earth was gone.

Auks were so delicious the Funk Islands have been described as North America’s first fast food restaurant.

The Great Auk colonies on the other side of the Atlantic met with their ends by more ignominious means. They were hunted to extinction to make pillows. Anyone who was anyone needed a pillow made from the down of a Great Auk.

The last bird in Scotland was killed in 1840, by a man who thought the bird was a witch who, as legend has it, was intent on brewing a malicious storm. The Scotsman bludgeoned the bird to death with a stick. The storm came anyway.

The final bird on Earth was killed in Iceland on the Isle of Eldey in 1844 by an Icelandic man who had been paid by a collector to get him one. He strangled it with his bare hands. The end of a species. There was one unconfirmed sighting in 1852, a report from a Newfoundland fishing crew who claim to have seen a Great Auk fishing with them on the Grand Banks. No further claims have been made.

Almost unbelievably, we may yet see the Great Auk returned to Newfoundland. An American research institute, Revive and Restore, believes that they have the ability to extract Great Auk DNA from museum samples, edit that DNA into a razorbill embryo (the Great Auk’s closest living relative), and implant the embryo into a goose (they need a bird big enough to lay the enormous egg). This would rebuild a healthy breeding population. Nature would then take over, and Great Auks would be returned to their habitats.

Revive and Restore believes they can extract Great Auk DNA from museum samples and revive the species.

If that wasn’t mind blowing enough, I have one final thought to leave you with. Given the remarkable exactness which existed between Great Auks and modern penguins, we are led down the garden path and around the bend to one horrific and inescapable conclusion. Penguins are most likely delicious.

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