The Great Auk

November 12, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), now displayed in sculpture on the southeast corner of the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was a flightless bird that fell prey to exploitation. A fast and facile swimmer and diver, the auk was characterized by its stubby wings, high-contrast black and white feathers, tall body, clumsy waddle, and large ribbed beak.  It was initially found in dense colonies in the subarctic Atlantic, along the coasts of Canada, the United States, Iceland and Norway. But human predation caused its numbers to dwindle over the course of several centuries.

The Great Auk

A hand coloured lithograph of Pinguinus impennis from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London via eol.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

Great auks spent most of their lives in the sea, seeking out land only during the spring breeding season. Their breeding sites were limited: the only suitable areas were those with reefs or rocky ledges, where the birds could waddle ashore to lay their eggs.  Because the birds tended to concentrate in a few coastal areas, they were an easy target for hunters. Indeed, they were subjected to large-scale massacres, hunters killing them for their meat, oil, and feathers. The latter were used for clothes and pillows, the comforts of humans and profits of businesses taking precedence over the survival of the bird.

 Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

The last two Great auks were killed in 1844, although there were reports of a single bird remaining in 1852. The remains of the last two confirmed birds are preserved in formaldehyde in a museum in Denmark, a sad reminder of the bird’s demise.

The Great auk inspired Ogden Nash’s A Caution to Everybody:

 

          Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.

Consider man, who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens Volunteer

 

Entry filed under: Education, Exhibits. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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