Our Seabird Policy Officer, Rory Crawford, is back with another seabird saga.

The tale of the great auk – Scotland’s great extinct penguin

After what I was saying Tuesday about taking our internationally-important seabirds for granted, I felt it important to re-tell a story that should serve as a cautionary tale. The tale of the great northern hemisphere penguin that was once common as muck – but is now exctinct.

Great auks were once found right across the North Atlantic – from Newfoundland, where the largest known colony was found on Funk Island (nothing to do with James Brown, as far as we know) to Iceland, across to Scotland and as far south as Madeira.

These birds looked a lot like big razorbills or guillemots. Standing at around 85 centimetres tall, their tiny wings made them look rather unwieldy. Not that it mattered too much to the great auk – these birds were flightless, built to pursue prey underwater.

It’s a huge disappointment that all we see of these birds now is the awkward-looking stuffed museum specimen you can see in the picture below. Just as penguins look slightly ridiculous waddling around on land, take one look at them shooting around underwater with nothing but the tiniest flick of a wing and you’ve got a much better insight into the true majesty of the great auk.


Great auk in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Photo: Mike Pennington

Being flightless, as well as being rather unafraid of humans, led ultimately to their downfall.  Without the ability to fly away from hunters, great auks were easy pickings for humans seeking an easy meal. It is rumoured that sailors were even able to anchor their boats next to colonies, lay out planks and herd great auks directly on board, where they would inevitably meet their end.

The last great auk in Scotland was killed on Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, where three islanders captured the bird and kept it alive for three days. When the weather deteriorated, they were convinced the auk was responsible, and killed it, believing it to be a witch.

As global numbers dwindled, the last few were sadly killed as specimens for collections – and the very last northern hemisphere penguin was killed on Eldey, Iceland between the 2nd and 5th of June, 1844.

It’s too late for the great auk – but it’s not too late for some of our cracking modern-day seabirds. Do your bit and sign our marine pledge and get everyone you know to do the same. If you haven't already, please watch our video and share the message

These guillemots still have a chance! Sign the Marine Pledge.