Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/The Home of the Great Auk

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THE fate of the great auk in its New World home is well known; how it was slaughtered for its flesh, slaughtered for its feathers, slaughtered for the mere wanton love of destruction, until after nearly three centuries of persecution the last great auk disappeared from the face of the earth. All this has been described, so that the bird and its history are fairly well known.

Less, however, has been written of its chosen breeding-grounds, as these were usually outlying islands of difficult access, but little frequented now by those who have either time or desire to devote to the subject. It was the good fortune of the writer, during the summer of 1887, to visit the favorite resort of the great auk.

This spot, lying thirty-two miles to the north and east of Cape Freels, Newfoundland, is Funk Island, whose granite sides and outlying reefs form a constant menace to the few vessels navigating the adjacent waters. Separated from it by intervals of six hundred and twelve hundred yards are two small, low islets, washed completely over in storms, the three constituting the group known as the Funks, although popularly the plural is often used when speaking of the larger island only. The locality is of considerable interest to the St. John's sealers, from the fact that the vast herds of seals that drift down from the north in the early spring are usually encountered and slain somewhere in this vicinity.

But to the ornithologist the chief interest of Funk Island will ever lie in its having been the headquarters of the great auk, the number of birds frequenting other localities being insignificant when compared with the feathered legions who dwelt on the granite cliffs of this lonely spot. Should this be doubted, it must be remembered that the work of extermination required more than two centuries of slaughter, while to-day the soil is whitened by the fragments of myriads of egg-shells.

The writer had long been desirous of procuring some bones of the great auk for the United States National Museum; and when in the spring of 1887 it was found that the work of the United States Fish Commission would take the schooner Grampus along the eastern coast of Newfoundland, it was decided that she should visit Funk Island, and he was detailed to accompany her. Daybreak on the morning of July 22d found the vessel about ten miles distant from the Funks, toward which she was slowly progressing before a light but fortunately favorable wind. But for the distance intervening between the schooner and her destination the weather would have been pronounced simply perfect, for fine weather is by no means common in this latitude, and yet it is essential for landing on this rocky outpost.[1] The morning wore slowly on, and not until noon was the Grampus near enough for a boat to be lowered and a start made for the shore.

The plan agreed upon was to take ashore in the first boat all things needful for a stay of several days, so that, a landing once effected, we would not be forced to quit the island by threatening weather, but could remain and prosecute our work, while the schooner sought safer quarters than near the breakers, which in rough weather are found in the vicinity of Funk Island. It was, therefore, with a well-loaded dory that we left the Grampus a mile from the northeastern point and pulled briskly in to look for a landing-place.

Viewing the island from a distance, it had appeared possible, with the light breeze then blowing, to beach a boat on the southerly slope; but, on closer approach, the seemingly narrow line of foam fringing the shewing rock had become transformed into the wash of a heavy swell upon a steep and slippery shore of granite, on which landing was quite out of the question.

The Great Auk.

Indefinite as was most of the information gathered in regard to the Funks during a stop at St. John's, all accounts agreed in locating the best landing on the northern side, not far from Escape Point, the eastern extremity. To this spot, known as the "Bench," we were also directed by the crew of a fishing-boat near by; and, passing the point on which the smooth swells broke into ragged patches of foam, a few minutes later found our boat lying at the foot of a low cliff, whose weathered side rose almost perpendicularly from the water. Right in the face of this cliff is a narrow natural path leading from near the level of the sea to perhaps twenty feet above it. The path at its widest is four feet across, but from this it tapers either way to nothing, the upper end terminating in a fissure just large enough to accommodate one's foot, the rough, weathered granite forming a very good substitute for a hand-rail. Indeed, Nature has probably never devised a better rock for climbing purposes than the coarse-grained, feldspathic granite composing Funk Island, which weathers into crannies and projections whose rough surfaces offer secure support for hand and foot.

Below the "Bench" the cliff descends almost vertically to a depth of one hundred and twenty feet beneath the sea, this combination of deep water and perpendicular rock offering no obstacle to chafe the sea into breaking, so that, but for the never-ceasing rise and fall of the swell, one almost seems to be lying beside some huge pier. This landing, however, is only practicable during a calm or with a southerly wind; and, smooth as it was at the time of our visit, the boat rose and fell with every heave of the ocean from four to six feet. With a northerly wind, boats seek a more precarious landing at the southwestern extremity of the island.

Once on the "Bench," to which we hastened to transfer ourselves and all our baggage, it is an easy matter to reach the summit of the island, either by scrambling directly up the rock or by an easier but longer zigzag path.

The result of a careful study of the island during the forenoon had been a unanimous decision that the precipitous character of a large portion of the shore hardly bore out Prof. Milne's simile of its likeness to an upturned saucer. Viewed from the eastern bluffs, it looks not only steep but larger and higher than most accounts would lead one to suppose. Its greatest length seems over half a mile, and its greatest width something over a quarter; so that Cartier, who came here in 1532 and 1534, can not be far out of the way when he says "it containeth about a league in circuit." While it may be a little presumptuous to question the height of forty-six feet given on the chart, nevertheless sixty feet would apparently be much nearer the mark.

Two faults, deepened by time into shallow valleys, divide the island into three ridges running almost east and west. The northern and central of these are bare rock, for the most part smoothed and rounded by rain and ice, but here and there weathered into curious, overlapping ledges. Here, where there is no soil whatever, the smell of guano arising from the droppings of the murres and puffins is quite noticeable, but elsewhere there is but little odor, and that due to the puffins. Rain has washed the soluble matter from the ancient soil of the island, while the heaps of auk

Egg of the Great Auk.

The great auk's egg, of which a natural-size representation is given in the accompanying figure, was recently sold at auction in England for £225; this is the highest price ever given for a single egg at any auction in England. This one was bought by its late owner, in 1851, for £18. Of the sixty-seven recorded specimens of this egg, forty-four are in Great Britain. Some two hundred and fifty years ago, vessels fishing on the Banks of Newfoundland made great use of these birds for provisions. They were plentiful in that vicinity, and when found on land could be captured wholesale by simply placing a plank from the shore to a boat, up which the auks could be driven. Having no power of flight, the species gradually disappeared from America, and from Europe not long after, the last two specimens of which there is trustworthy evidence having been killed in Iceland in 1844.

bodies long ago crumbled away, yielding up the odor they may once have possessed.

Between the central and southern rise are numerous shallow pools of rain-water, rendered brackish by the driving spray, but still fresh enough to be drunk in case of emergency. Just such an emergency befell a party of eggers some twenty years ago when their schooner was forced away by stress of weather, leaving the men who had landed to subsist for eleven days on a varied diet of eggs, birds, and brackish water.

On the western portion of the southernmost swell of rock lie the former breeding-grounds of the great auk, now mapped out in rich green by the rank vegetation covering this, the soil-clad part of the island. This section alone was accessible to the flightless garefowl, and here in days gone by the great auk scrambled through the breakers and over the slippery rocks, which north and south slope into the sea, to reach its nesting-place. Here, to-day, its bones lie buried in the shallow soil, every weathered slab of granite marking the resting-place of some ill-fated bird. The industrious puffins, whose labors have everywhere honey-combed the ground, play the part of resurrectionists, and the entrance to each burrow is ornamented by a little heap of slowly whitening bones.

To our party these little osteological collections were a goodly sight, settling at once the question of finding remains of the great auk, and indicating by their presence the existence of other bones yet to be brought to light. Fortunately, the anatomy of the great auk is peculiar, so that there could be no doubt but what the bones here and there strewed on the surface were the bones we had come so far to seek.

There is not the slightest possibility of any bone of the razorbill or murre being mistaken for that of their huge relative the great auk; and, in fact, of all the bones exhumed, there was little more than a handful belonging to any bird save this giant among auks.

Crowning the summit of the island are the ruins of a stone hut, years ago the winter quarters of a sealing-party, placed here to await the coming of the seals on the drifting ice of early spring. The experiment resulted fatally, for all save the cook were drowned while hunting, and he, the sole survivor, was almost insane when rescued.

Not far from here, an old chest, peeping from beneath a pile of stone, marks the grave of another sealer, a young man from Green Bay, who, carried out into the fog by drifting ice, perished miserably near this forlorn spot.

Near by are the almost obliterated walls of two small structures, overgrown with weeds, which in default of any tradition may be surmised to be the dwellings of the old-time destroyers of the auk.

The stones of which these huts were built, as well as those forming the inclosures in which the auks were confined to await their slaughter, were quarried by Nature from the granite rock of the island. Time and frost split this into blocks of varying size and thickness, and, just where the great auks were most abundant, just there the slabs of stone lay thickest, as if Nature wished to aid man in his work of destruction.

There are no bowlders of foreign origin on this part of the island, nor did we see any along the sloping northwestern shore, although Prof. Milne found some there at the time of his visit in 1874. Many of the inclosures just alluded to ("compounds" they were termed) have disappeared, but others are still distinctly outlined, although most of the stone slabs composing them now lie prostrate. The two best-preserved pens, located some little distance from the southwestern lauding, are about twelve feet square, and not one block of stone is missing.

Close by these compounds we upturned the sod over a circle ten feet in diameter, beneath which the soil was composed of charcoal and auk-bones, the charred condition of the latter testifying to the truth of the accounts that the fat bodies of the slain birds were used as fuel to heat water for scalding their companions—a near approach to seething the kid in its mother's milk. Other cooking places, where the birds were scalded and plucked, lie scattered along the crest of the southern slope, although it is only by much digging that their existence is brought to light. An excavation made near the best-preserved pens revealed the fact that here was probably one of the last places where the great auk was taken. Scarcely two inches of turf covered the shallow soil in which lay imbedded a few fresh-looking bones of the great auk, mixed with others belonging to its relative, the murre. Evidently, the great auk was even then on the wane; its numbers were no longer sufficient to supply the demands of the feather hunters, who, like their successors, promptly supplied the deficiency with the next bird at hand.

The great auk, by the way, is not the only bird exterminated on Funk Island, for the gannet lives only in the name, Gannet Head, although it was abundant in the time of Cartier, and, according to report, still lingered thirty years ago.

Thanks to the efforts of the eggers, the numbers of all birds breeding here have greatly lessened during the last twenty years, and only the puffin, whose security lies in his burrow, seems able to hold his own.

The soil of Funk Island is in two distinct layers, the lower of which, mostly formed during the occupancy of the great auk, is from three inches to a foot in thickness. Next the bed-rock lie a few angular pebbles, of various sizes, mixed with and covered by a deposit containing innumerable fragments of egg-shells, the whole having a yellowish-gray appearance. Even were there but few bones present, the character of this stratum is in itself sufficient to indicate the immense number of auks formerly breeding here, as well as the length of time during which they made Funk Island their resort. Also, were there no testimony to the contrary, the shallowness of the soil would show the inaccuracy of those writers who state that the great auk nested in a burrow. The upper stratum of soil has been formed since the extermination of the auks, principally by the growth and decay of the vegetation, nourished by their decomposing bodies. This fine, dark colored, superficial layer, covered with thick, loose turf, formed by the matted roots of plants, also varies in thickness from three or four inches to a foot. In it are found the great majority of bones, the patches of charcoal indicating the location of the cooking-places, and, very rarely, linings of eggs in a more or less dilapidated condition.

By far the best-preserved remains occur in the older soil, where they are less exposed to the action of the weather, so that, contrary to what might have been expected, the more recently killed birds are the poorest for anatomical purposes.

These Alcine remains, if one may judge from the brief accounts of the few visits made to Funk Island, are rapidly deteriorating. Thus, in 1863, a party of guano-seekers came upon four nearly entire, dried-up bodies; while, in 1874, Prof. Milne secured in half an hour bones representing fifty individuals from which four more or less complete skeletons were reconstructed.

In 1887 our party passed the better part of two busy days in the work of excavating bones of the great auk; and, although the material secured represents hundreds of individuals, it may not make more than a dozen skeletons, and these not all absolutely perfect.

So difficult is it to procure certain bones in a good state of preservation, that the collection of the United States National Museum contains but a single perfect sternum, and one nearly perfect pelvis. Twenty-five years have elapsed since the "mummies" were secured; and while it is quite possible that others may yet be exhumed, it will be either by rare good fortune or an unlimited amount of digging, for, in the hope of coming upon a "mummy," many holes were sunk quite to the bed-rock, but without success. Curiously enough, these bones rarely bear any mark to indicate that the birds were killed by stick or knife, a fact which caused Prof. Milne to remark that this "leads to the supposition that the birds may have died peacefully." Birds that die peacefully, however, seem to have a habit of making away with their skeletons, and on Funk Island there are few bones to be found of any bird save the great auk.[2]

Even in the immense guano deposits of the Chincha Islands, where the perfect dryness of the soil is unusually favorable to the preservation of inhumed specimens, bird remains are of rare occurrence.

Some of the crania, too, found on Funk Island, bear fractures that must have been caused by a heavy blow, and one specimen met with had evidently come to its death from the stroke of a knife. Prof. Milne's second surmise, that the bones "were the remains of some great slaughter, when the birds had been killed, parboiled, and despoiled only of their feathers; after which they were thrown in a heap," is undoubtedly correct. Not only is the conjecture borne out by current tradition, and by the intermingled condition of the skeletons, but by the distorted appearance of many bones, which, like the ribs, pelvis, and wish-bone, would be most easily affected by pressure. The mixed state of the bones, for which the busy puffins are to some extent responsible, renders it absolutely impossible to secure the skeleton of any given individual, and makes it necessary to procure a large number of bones in order that there should be the least chance of reconstructing an entire specimen. A skeleton recently mounted for the exhibition series of the United States National Museum is absolutely perfect, while the number of bones secured by our party on the Grampus probably exceeds that of all other collections combined. Some of these are naturally in a poor state of preservation, but others are quite perfect, and, save for their discoloration, in as good condition as if buried only for two or three years.

It would scarcely be just to close this article without giving all due credit to Captain J. W. Collins, whose cordial support of the proposed expedition finally determined the sending of the Grampus to Funk Island, and made the trip so decidedly a success. The thanks of the party are also tendered to the Rev. M. Harvey, of St. John's, for the advice and information so cheerfully given them.

  1. A short time after our departure a French collector spent some time at the Funks, vainly waiting for an opportunity to land, and finally departed unsuccessful.
  2. Since this was written I have had time to examine the material more carefully, and find that a large number of the crania are fractured.