1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gare-fowl

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GARE-FOWL[1] (Icelandic, Geirfugl; Gaelic, Gearbhul), the anglicized form of the Hebridean name of a large sea-bird now considered extinct, formerly a visitor to certain remote Scottish islands, the Great Auk of most English book-writers, and the Alca impennis of Linnaeus. In size it was hardly less than a tame goose, and in appearance it much resembled its smaller and surviving relative the razor-bill (Alca torda); but the glossy black of its head was varied by a large patch of white occupying nearly all the space between the eye and the bill, in place of the razor-bill’s thin white line, while the bill itself bore eight or more deep transverse grooves instead of the smaller number and the ivory-like mark possessed by the species last named. Otherwise the coloration was similar in both, and there is satisfactory evidence that the gare-fowl’s winter-plumage differed from that of the breeding-season just as is ordinarily the case in other members of the family Alcidae to which it belongs. The most striking characteristic of the gare-fowl, however, was the comparatively abortive condition of its wings, the distal portions of which, though the bird was just about twice the linear dimensions of the razor-bill, were almost exactly of the same size as in that species—proving, if more direct evidence were wanting, its inability to fly.

Gare-Fowl, or Great Auk.

The most prevalent misconception concerning the gare-fowl is one which has been repeated so often, and in books of such generally good repute and wide dispersal, that a successful refutation seems almost hopeless. This is the notion that it was a bird possessing a very high northern range, and consequently to be looked for by Arctic explorers. How this error arose would take too long to tell, but the fact remains indisputable that, setting aside general assertions resting on no evidence worthy of attention, there is but a single record deserving any credit at all of a single example of the species having been observed within the Arctic Circle, and this, according to Prof. Reinhardt, who had the best means of ascertaining the truth, is open to grave doubt.[2] It is clear that the older ornithologists let their imagination get the better of their knowledge or their judgment, and their statements have been blindly repeated by most of their successors. Another error which, if not so widely spread, is at least as serious, since Sir R. Owen unhappily gave it countenance, is that this bird “has not been specially hunted down like the dodo and dinornis, but by degrees has become more scarce.” If any reliance can be placed upon the testimony of former observers, the first part of this statement is absolutely untrue. Of the dodo all we know is that it flourished in Mauritius, its only abode, at the time the island was discovered, and that some 200 years later it had ceased to exist—the mode of its extinction being open to conjecture, and a strong suspicion existing that though indirectly due to man’s acts it was accomplished by his thoughtless agents (Phil. Trans., 1869, p. 354). The extinction of the Dinornis lies beyond the range of recorded history. Supposing it even to have taken place at the very latest period as yet suggested—and there is much to be urged in favour of such a supposition—little but oral tradition remains to tell us how its extirpation was effected. That it existed after New Zealand was inhabited by man is indeed certain, and there is nothing extraordinary in the proved fact that the early settlers (of whatever race they were) killed and ate moas. But evidence that the whole population of those birds was done to death by man, however likely it may seem, is wholly wanting. The contrary is the case with the gare-fowl. In Iceland there is the testimony of a score of witnesses, taken down from their lips by one of the most careful naturalists who ever lived, John Wolley, that the latest survivors of the species were caught and killed by expeditions expressly organized with the view of supplying the demands of caterers to the various museums of Europe. In like manner the fact is incontestable that its breeding-stations in the western part of the Atlantic were for three centuries regularly visited and devastated with the combined objects of furnishing food or bait to the fishermen from very early days, and its final extinction, according to Sir Richard Bonnycastle (Newfoundland in 1842, i. p. 232), was owing to “the ruthless trade in its eggs and skin.” There is no doubt that one of the chief stations of this species in Icelandic waters disappeared through volcanic action, and that the destruction of the old Geirfuglaskér drove some at least of the birds which frequented it to a rock nearer the mainland, where they were exposed to danger from which they had in their former abode been comparatively free; yet on this rock (Eldey=fire-island) they were “specially hunted down” whenever opportunity offered, until the stock there was wholly extirpated in 1844.

A third misapprehension is that entertained by John Gould in his Birds of Great Britain, where he says that “formerly this bird was plentiful in all the northern parts of the British Islands, particularly the Orkneys and the Hebrides. At the commencement of the 19th century, however, its fate appears to have been sealed; for though it doubtless existed, and probably bred, up to the year 1830, its numbers annually diminished until they became so few that the species could not hold its own.” Now of the Orkneys, we know that George Low, who died in 1795, says in his posthumously-published Fauna Orcadensis that he could not find it was ever seen there; and on Bullock’s visit in 1812 he was told, says Montagu (Orn. Dict. App.), that one male only had made its appearance for a long time. This bird he saw and unsuccessfully hunted, but it was killed soon after his departure, while its mate had been killed just before his arrival, and none have been seen there since. As to the Hebrides, St Kilda is the only locality recorded for it, and the last example known to have been obtained there, or in its neighbourhood, was that given to Fleming (Edinb. Phil. Journ. x. p. 96) in 1821 or 1822, having been some time before captured by Mr Maclellan of Glass. That the gare-fowl was not plentiful in either group of islands is sufficiently obvious, as also is the impossibility of its continuing to breed “up to the year 1830.”

But mistakes like these are not confined to British authors. As on the death of an ancient hero myths gathered round his memory as quickly as clouds round the setting sun, so have stories, probable as well as impossible, accumulated over the true history of this species, and it behoves the conscientious naturalist to exercise more than common caution in sifting the truth from the large mass of error. Americans have asserted that the specimen which belonged to Audubon (now at Vassar College) was obtained by him on the banks of Newfoundland, though there is Macgillivray’s distinct statement (Brit. Birds, v. p. 359) that Audubon procured it in London. The account given by Degland (Orn. Europ. ii. p. 529) in 1849, and repeated in the last edition of his work by M. Gerbe, of its extinction in Orkney, is so manifestly absurd that it deserves to be quoted in full: “Il se trouvait en assez grand nombre il y a une quinzaine d’années aux Orcades; mais le ministre presbytérien dans le Mainland, en offrant une forte prime aux personnes qui lui apportaient cet oiseau, a été cause de sa destruction sur ces îles.” The same author claims the species as a visitor to the shores of France on the testimony of Hardy (Annuaire normand, 1841, p. 298), which he grievously misquotes both in his own work and in another place (Naumannia, 1855, p. 423), thereby misleading an anonymous English writer (Nat. Hist. Rev., 1865, p. 475) and numerous German readers.

John Milne in 1875 visited Funk Island, one of the former resorts of the gare-fowl, or “penguin,” as it was there called, in the Newfoundland seas, a place where bones had before been obtained by Stuvitz, and natural mummies so lately as 1863 and 1864. Landing on this rock at the risk of his life, he brought off a rich cargo of its remains, belonging to no fewer than fifty birds, some of them in size exceeding any that had before been known. His collection was subsequently dispersed, most of the specimens finding their way into various public museums.

A literature by no means inconsiderable has grown up respecting the gare-fowl. Neglecting works of general bearing, few of which are without many inaccuracies, the following treatises may be especially mentioned:—J. J. S. Steenstrup, “Et Bidrag til Geirfuglens Naturhistorie og saerligt til Kundskaben om dens tidligere Udbredningskreds,” Naturh. Foren. Vidensk. Meddelelser (Copenhagen, 1855), p. 33; E. Charlton, “On the Great Auk,” Trans. Tyneside Nat. Field Club, iv. p. 111; “Abstract of Mr J. Wolley’s Researches in Iceland respecting the Gare-fowl,” Ibis (1861), p. 374; W. Preyer, “Über Plautus impennis,” Journ. für Orn. (1862), pp. 110, 337; K. E. von Baer, “Über das Aussterben der Tierarten in physiologischer und nicht physiologischer Hinsicht,” Bull. de l’Acad. Imp. de St-Pétersb. vi. p. 513; R. Owen, “Description of the Skeleton of the Great Auk,” Trans. Zool. Soc. v. p. 317; “The Gare-fowl and its Historians,” Nat. Hist. Rev. v. p. 467; J. H. Gurney, jun., “On the Great Auk,” Zoologist (2nd ser.), pp. 1442, 1639; H. Reeks, “Great Auk in Newfoundland,” &c., op. cit. p. 1854; V. Fatio, “Sur l’Alca impennis,” Bull. Soc. Orn. Suisse, ii. pp. 1, 80, 147; “On existing Remains of the Gare-fowl,” Ibis (1870), p. 256; J. Milne, “Relics of the Great Auk,” Field (27th of March, 3rd and 10th of April 1875). Lastly, reference cannot be omitted to the happy exercise of poetic fancy with which Charles Kingsley was enabled to introduce the chief facts of the gare-fowl’s extinction (derived from one of the above-named papers) into his charming Water Babies. (A. N.) 

  1. The name first appears, and in this form, in the Account of Hirta (St Kilda) and Rona, &c., by the lord register, Sir George M‘Kenzie of Tarbat, printed by Pinkerton in his Collection of Voyages and Travels (iii. p. 730), and then in Sibbald’s Scotia illustrata (1684). Martin soon after, in his Voyage to St Kilda, spelt it “Gairfowl.” Sir R. Owen adopted the form “garfowl,” without, as would seem any precedent authority.
  2. The specimen is in the Museum of Copenhagen; the doubt lies as to the locality where it was obtained, whether at Disco, which is within, or at the Fiskernis, which is without, the Arctic Circle.