The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless alcid species that died out in the mid-nineteenth century. The genus Pinguinus had only one current species. It is not closely related to the birds presently known as penguins, which were discovered later and called after the great auk by sailors due to their physical resemblance. It exclusively nested on rocky, isolated islands with good access to the water and plenty of food, a natural rarity that afforded only a few breeding locations for the great auks. They spent their time foraging in the North Atlantic, traveling as far south as northern Spain and along the coasts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain when they weren’t reproducing.
The great auk stood 75 to 85 centimeters (30 to 33 inches) tall and weighed about 5 kilograms (11 pounds), making it the largest alcid to have survived into the modern era and the second biggest alcid overall (the prehistoric Miomancalla was larger). It had a white tummy and a black back. The black beak had grooves on its surface and was hefty and hooked. During the summer, each great auk’s eye had a white patch. During the winter, the great auk loses its patches and develops a white stripe between its eyes. The bird was unable to fly because its wings were just 15 cm length. Instead, the big auk was a strong swimmer, which it used when hunting. Fish, such as Atlantic menhaden and capelin, and crabs were among its favorite foods. It was ungainly on land, despite being nimble in the water. Great auk couples that have been bonded for life. They laid one egg on exposed rock and nested in extraordinarily thick and gregarious colonies. The egg was white with brown marbling that varied. Before the baby hatched, both parents assisted in the incubation of the egg for around 6 weeks. After 2–3 weeks, the young departed the nest location, but the parents remained to look after them.
Many Native American civilizations valued the great auk as a food source and a symbolic object. Many people from the Maritime Archaic were interred with large auk bones. More than 200 great auk beaks were unearthed in one grave, which are thought to be the remnants of a robe constructed of great auk skins. The great auk was utilized as a handy food source or as fishing bait by early European explorers to the Americas, diminishing its population. The down of the bird was in high demand in Europe, which led to the extinction of the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon realized the great auk was vanishing, and it became the target of a slew of early environmental legislation, but they were ineffective.
Its increasing rarity piqued the attention of European museums and individual collectors in getting the bird’s skins and eggs. The final two verified specimens were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, on June 3, 1844, putting a stop to the final recorded mating effort. Later sightings or captures of wandering persons have not been confirmed. Some believe that a single great auk sighting in 1852 was the final known sighting of the species. The great auk is referenced in various novels, and until 2021, the American Ornithological Society’s scholarly publication was titled The Auk in honor of the bird.