Who Killed the Great Auk?

Everyone knows this, right? Those three dudes on Eldey Island in the summer of 1844.

Only maybe not.

This slender volume by writer/ornithologist Jeremy Gaskell does a brilliant job of delving into the question, weighing the relative impact of egging, sport hunting, market hunting, feather harvesting, collecting, a few key instances of habitat loss, and some notable examples of sheer assholery (including reports of sailors throwing live birds into fires for entertainment.) Since all these groups (except the sinking volcanic islands and, for the most part, the sadists) commenced to eagerly cast blame on each other in the wake of the Great Auk’s extinction (especially in Great Britain, when it became clear that declining seabird stocks were going to result in action on the part of Parliament) it’s not an easy matter to unravel.

Complicating matters, as the book documents, is the fact that during the time when the Great Auk was being driven out of existence pretty much nobody had a good idea of what the hell was going on. Peoples who lived near the auk colonies (including a few cultures who had managed to feed themselves with sustainably harvested seabirds and eggs for centuries before capitalism and colonialism came into the picture) noticed local extinctions, but lacked a global perspective. Even the experts who first raised the alarm about the overall dwindling mostly assumed that the Auk was at heart an Arctic species and that the colonies being lost represented the southern fringes, not the core, of the population.

The incredible paucity of accurate information collected about the Great Auk during its tenure in the world is a theme that Gaskell returns to over and over again, as when he poignantly notes that we have but two or three written descriptions of the sound the bird made and hardly any understanding of its transitional plumages. He also stresses the links between man’s inhumanity to man and man’s inhumanity to Auk – many of the most serious depredations resulted from conditions of ongoing desperation and a tragedy of the commons, where those who practiced restraint in leaving breeding birds and eggs for another day were simply scooped by those intent on making the most money fastest.

The text, though at times brutally depressing reading, is well-crafted, combining a lively, accessible style with meticulous and extensive footnotes and a number of fascinating black-and-white illustrations of the bird and the people who studied it. In fact, the only thing I can truly find to hold against this book is its price – being from Oxford University Press, it’s not cheap, particularly in our tiny American dollars. (I confess, I bought mine used.) Still, if you can come at a copy some way, it’s very much worth reading.

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