The Great Auk - Canada's Penguin

Submitted by Danny Catt on Mon, 2007/03/26 - 3:27pm.
The Great Auk

The Great Auk

If someone was to come to you and ask, “Do we have or have we ever had penguins in the northern hemisphere?” What would you say? The answer is actually… no… and yes. As described in a previous blog post there are 17 species of penguin in the world, all of which are found in the southern hemisphere (with the one exception of the Galapagos Penguin which can be found just north of the Equator).

At one point in time though, the original penguin, the Great Auk was found in Canadian waters off the east coast of Canada and was in fact very abundant in the northern hemisphere including the coasts of Iceland, Scotland, Greenland & Newfoundland. The scientific name for the Great Auk is (Pinguinus impennis).

The Great Auk nested in huge colonies and had very large eggs which made them desirable for egg harvesters. They were flightless and defenseless and starting in the 1500s they were harvested for their eggs, feathers & meat. Funk Island off Newfoundland – with an estimated population of about 200,000 birds - has been described by Dr. Bill Montivechi, a well known ornithologist on Canada’s east coast, as the New World’s first ‘fast-food takeout’

The story of the Great Auk is a sad one as they were harvested indiscriminately for decades. In 1830 – one of the last remaining breeding pairs was lost in a volcanic eruption in Iceland. In 1844 – last two known Great Auks were killed by collectors off the south coast of Iceland.
In 1971, the Iceland Natural History Museum paid $18,000 for a stuffed flightless Great Auk… the highest price ever paid for a dead bird.

If you were to look at the list of extinct species on the Canadian Species at Risk website, the Great Auk is one of those listed. Check out:

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