Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/April 1903/The Great Auk in Art

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The Great Auk




A CAREFUL examination and comparison of the available illustrations of the great auk leaves the mind in some doubt as to the appearance of this extinct, flightless bird. Some of these illustrations are found in recent publications, while others illuminate descriptive articles written over a century ago. A few voyagers, notably Richard Hakluyt, sometime preacher, and M. Martin, Gent., undoubtedly saw the bird in great abundance on certain islands of the north Atlantic which were notorious as the home of the auk—Hakluyt on the American side and Martin off the coast of Scotland. But neither of these travelers left even a rough sketch of what his eyes saw. Zoologists, naturalists, taxidermists and ornithologists have, however, given us their conception of the bird in black and white, and a number of their illustrations are reproduced and accompany this article.

Undoubtedly the only sources of inspiration for the earlier drawings are the written descriptions of the bird, or the attempts to reconcile several divergent descriptions by a plate which would strike a happy mean, the dried skin coming in later as a desirable artists' accessory. The mounted skin also has had a baneful influence upon the pencil of the artist, for in no other way can the differences in form and outline be understood or the reckless indifference to details be satisfactorily explained. Turning to the sources of inspiration which are chiefly responsible for the erroneous, visual evidence of extinction of as many species of great auk as there are drawings of the bird extant, we find that descriptions in detail force a most charitable view of the shortcomings of the pencil and brush. One would not be justified in charging superlative imaginative powers upon the artists, until the apparent mendacities of the writers had been explained. However, to careless observation and lack of familiarity with birds may be charged the majority of the mistakes of both pen and brush. A careful sifting of the available evidence seems to warrant the conclusion that the pictures of the great auk, heretofore published, are defective in many important particulars. These will lie considered later in detail.

In the following paragraphs descriptions of similar parts of the great auk, furnished by writers of the past 320 years, are grouped together making comparison easy and the fact that the quotations from some of these authors cover but a point or two does not render the information given by them any the less interesting. That but three

of the authors quoted below, Hakluyt 1583, Wormius 1655, and Martin 1697, ever saw the great auk alive or in the flesh is an item of more than passing interest.

Size of the Great Auk.—Very large, not much less than a goose—Hakluyt, 1583. Did not much exceed the bigness of a goose—Wormius, 1655. Above the size of a Solan goose—Martin, 1697. Size of a goose—Brookes, 1771. Three feet to the end of the toes—Pennant, 1812. Three feet long, size of a goose but slender—Buffon, 1812. Approaches that of a goose—Cuvier, 1817. Approaches a goose—Willoughby. Length to end of tail, 29 ins., 3112 ins. to end of feet—Audubon, 1840. Thirty inches to three feet—Jardine, 1860. About 3 feet long—Dallas, 1867. Size of a goose Seebohm,—1886. Twenty-seven and a half inches to tail—Duchaussoy, 1897.
The Great Auk of Audubon.
Bill of the Auk.—A long broad bill—Martin, 1697. Like a broad cutlass, sides fiat and hollowed with notches—Buffon, 1812. Marked with several furrows—Pennant, 1812. Black, with 8 or 10 grooves, long and broad—Cuvier, 1817. Black with grooves between transverse ridges white—Audubon, 1840. Black with transverse furrows, the grooves white—Jardine, 1860. White grooves less conspicuous than in Razorbills—Seebohm, 1886. Bill black with 7 or S whitish grooves on upper, 10 or 11 on lower—Duchaussoy, 1897.

White Marks on Head.—Large white spot under each eye, red about the eyes—Martin, 1697. White oval spot before the eye—Linnaeus, 1761. Large white spot between eye and bill—Pennant, 1812. Great oval white spot between bill and eye, margin rising like a rim on each side of the head, which is very flat—Buffon, 1812. Oval white patch between the eye and bill—Cuvier, 1817. Large oblong white patch before each eye—Audubon, 1840. In front and around the eyes is a large oval patch of white—Jardine, 1860. White oval patch from eye to bill—Seebohm, 1886. In front of eyes oval white spot on side of head from base of bill—Duchaussoy, 1897.

Description of Neck.—Short and thick—Audubon, 1840.

Character of Wing.—Cannot flie, their wings not able to carry them—Hakluyt, 1583. Its wings short, it flies not at all—Martin, 1697. So small as to
be useless in flight, four inches from tip to first joint—Pennant, 1812. Great, feathers exceed not 3 inches in length, cannot raise into the air—Buffon, 1812. Very small in proportion to other birds, for subaquatic progression—Cuvier, 1817. Extremely small but perfectly formed—Audubon, 1840. Very small although formed of regular feathers, serve as fins when diving—Dallas, 1867. Like small duck—Seebohm, 1886. Rudimentary, useless fur flight; used in swimming and diving—Duchaussoy, 1897. Feet.—She is whole-footed—Martin, 1697. Placed far behind, but very strong—Audubon, 1840.
Smithsonian Great Auk Skeleton.
Altitude and Mode of Progression.—Stands stately, its whole body erected—Martin, 1697. Can scarcely even walk; pace heavy and sluggish; lies stretched out on rocks and ice; erect attitude is painful—Buffon, 1812. Stood very erect, never flapped along water surface—Wooley, 1858. Only shuffled along—Seebohm, 1886.
After having compared the above descriptions, one is not inclined to criticize harshly the illustrations based upon them, except in cases where the author, after having carefully noted an important specific marking, entirely omits it in his drawing. The white spots on either side of the head of the great auk seem to have been a most serious stumbling-block to writers and artists alike. Martin, in 1697, states that the white spot is under the eye. No other description agrees with this, and the photographs of mounted skins show no such phenomenon

—but Martin saw the birds. Sir William Jardine, in 1860, says the white spot is in front and around the eye, but his drawing shows he had not the courage of his conviction. However, Carpenter, in 1866, and Dallas, in 1867, took Jardine at his word, as appears from their illustrations of the bird. It is noteworthy that while nearly all the authors quoted describe the form of this spot as 'oval,' the photographs of mounted birds rarely show such an outline. This is owing to faulty taxidermy. A sub-triangular spot seems to have been the popular form with the majority, both of artists and taxidermists, in spite of the practical uniformity in description as to the oval shape. From the time of Brookes, in 1771, until a comparatively recent date, there has existed a strong desire to continue the spot under the eye, thus in a degree conforming to Martin's description in 1697. Audubon aimed to satisfy everybody, for in his swimming bird a white triangular spot continues under the eye while the 'large oblong white patch before each eye' of his standing bird conforms to his description.[1] Referring to the illustration of the Smithsonian auk, after remounting, it will be noted that the white spot is oval or elliptical in shape, with a comparatively even and regular outline, and this is believed to represent this characteristic marking of the species in its correct form and position. Any taxidermist can understand how a dried skin which has been softened unevenly might be stretched in such manner as to extend the margin of the spot outward in any direction, even under the eye, as in Audubon's swimming bird, or how an indentation could be produced such as appears on the front margin of the spot in his standing bird. Neither of these outlines, however, is tenable in the light of the evidence offered. The oval spot surrounding the eye can only be supported by an appeal to the offhand statement of Sir William Jardine, a statement which is disputed by every available fact.

Little need be said concerning the illustrations of the bill of the great auk, except that the outline in the majority is fairly good, although the representation of the grooves and their location on the bill appears to have been subject to speculative influences. The 'white grooves' of several authors should not be confounded with the white lines which appear crossing both maxilla and mandible in all published photographs. These lines are high-light lines due to light reflected from the elevated ridges above the grooves. An examination of the bills of mounted great auks shows that the grooves are a horn-white or whitish in the bottom, a shade much darker than the reflected light from the polished ridge would appear.

  1. The auks of Audubon accompanying this article were copied from the plate in the Library Edition of 1840 in which he says, regarding the illustrations—the drawings on stone and the colouring, have also been well done and the former are almost all superior to the first numbers of the work, which I considered very good.'