The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Great Auk

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GREAT AUK. An extinct auk (Plautus impennis), much like the existing razor-bill, but larger (nearly the size of a goose), with a larger bill and relatively smaller wings; formerly called garefowl. It was black above and white below, with a conspicuous white patch in front of the eye. It was an expert swimmer and diver, but unable to fly on account of the very small size of its wings. The habits of the garefowl were those of auks generally, but its range was limited on the American coast to the vicinity of Newfoundland. It seems never to have lived north of the Arctic Grcle; but its bones in shell-heaps testify to its former occurrence, at least in migrations, southward as far as Florida. These birds bred on small islands off the coast of Iceland, and on the Orkneys and Hebrides. Early in the 19th century they disappeared from these haunts, mainly through the persecution of fishermen and sailors who had for years killed them for food, bait and feathers; but they lingered somewhat longer in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Cartier's vessels visited Funk Island in 1534, and the crews easily filled two boats with the birds which they knocked down with sticks; and their abundance was mentioned as one of the inducements for settlers to come to Newfoundland. For many years the colony was ruthlessly harried, yet a few pairs survived until about 1840. A small breeding-place remained in Iceland until 1844, when the last few pairs were killed as museum specimens. The skins of this auk have been sold for $650, and an egg for $2,500. About 78 specimens of the bird are preserved in museums throughout Europe and America. Consult Newton's ‘Dictionary of Birds,’ article ‘Garefowl,’ and articles by F. A. Lucas in ‘Reports United States National Museum’ for 1887-88 and for 1888-89.