3 July 1844

The last of the great auks are killed.

The great auk is a species of flightless alcid that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus. It is unrelated to the birds now known as penguins, which were discovered later and so named by sailors because of their physical resemblance to the great auk.

It bred on rocky, isolated islands with easy access to the ocean and a plentiful food supply, a rarity in nature that provided only a few breeding sites for the great auks. When not breeding, they spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain and along the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain.

The great auk was 75 to 85 cm tall and weighed about 5 kg, making it the second-largest member of the alcid family. It had a black back and a white belly. The black beak was heavy and hooked, with grooves on its surface. During summer, great auk plumage showed a white patch over each eye. During winter, the great auk lost these patches, instead developing a white band stretching between the eyes. The wings were only 15 cm long, rendering the bird flightless. Instead, the great auk was a powerful swimmer, a trait that it used in hunting. Its favourite prey were fish, including Atlantic menhaden and capelin, and crustaceans. Although agile in the water, it was clumsy on land. Great auk pairs mated for life. They nested in extremely dense and social colonies, laying one egg on bare rock. The egg was white with variable brown marbling. Both parents participated in the incubation of the egg for around 6 weeks before the young hatched. The young left the nest site after 2–3 weeks, although the parents continued to care for it.

The great auk was an important part of many Native American cultures, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. Many Maritime Archaic people were buried with great auk bones. One burial discovered included someone covered by more than 200 great auk beaks, which are presumed to be the remnants of a cloak made of great auk skins. Early European explorers to the Americas used the great auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird’s down was in high demand in Europe, a factor that largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon began to realize that the great auk was disappearing and it became the beneficiary of many early environmental laws, but this proved ineffectual.

Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird. On 3 June 1844, the last two confirmed specimens were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, ending the last known breeding attempt. Later reports of roaming individuals being seen or caught are unconfirmed. A record of one great auk in 1852 is considered by some to be the last sighting of a member of the species. The great auk is mentioned in several novels and the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union is named The Auk in honour of this bird.

3 July 1844

The last pair of great auks is killed.

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The Little Ice Age may have reduced the population of the Great Auk by exposing more of their breeding islands to predation by Polar Bears, but massive exploitation for their down drastically reduced the population. By the mid-16th century, the nesting colonies along the European side of the Atlantic were nearly all eliminated by humans killing this bird for its down, which was used to make pillows. In 1553, the auk received its first official protection, and in 1794 Great Britain banned the killing of this species for its feathers. In St. John’s, individuals violating a 1775 law banning hunting the Great Auk for its feathers or eggs were publicly flogged, though hunting for use as fishing bait was still permitted.

With its increasing rarity, specimens of the Great Auk and its eggs became collectible and highly prized by rich Europeans, and the loss of a large number of its eggs to collection contributed to the demise of the species. Eggers, individuals who visited the nesting sites of the Great Auk to collect their eggs, quickly realized that the birds did not all lay their eggs on the same day, so they could make return visits to the same breeding colony. Eggers only collected eggs without embryos growing inside of them and typically discarded the eggs with embryos.

It was on the islet of Stac an Armin, St Kilda, Scotland, in July 1844, that the last Great Auk seen in the British Isles was caught and killed. Three men from St Kilda caught a single “garefowl”, noticing its little wings and the large white spot on its head. They tied it up and kept it alive for three days, until a large storm arose. Believing that the auk was a witch and the cause of the storm, they then killed it by beating it with a stick. It is the only British bird made extinct in historic times.

3 July 1940

During World War II, the French fleet that is based at Mers el Kébir, is attacked by the British fleet destroying three battleships, the Dunkerque, Provence and Bretagne. 1200 sailors loose their lives.