Wednesday, April 08, 2009
GLEN VAUDREY: Looking for the great Auk
The last confirmed sighting of a happy and lively looking Great Auk took place on the Icelandic island of Eldey on 3 June 1844 and how do we know it is the last confirmed sighting, we have the bodies to prove it. Unfortunately the witnesses to this last sighting happened to be a couple of hunters who had just dispatched the birds. It is unlikely that they even knew the importance of that days hunt.
Like many reckless acts of violence it would come to be regretted in the years to come and such was this case. Iceland may have played host to the last known populations of this remarkable bird but it was left without a single example of this most well adapted of sea birds.
It would be 1971 before Iceland would acquire its very own Great Auk buying one at a London auction for the princely sum of £9,000 which was at the time a world record price for a stuffed bird. Unlike the last bird leaving the island in a crate the new example was flown back to Iceland first class and received a hero’s welcome upon arrival in Reykjavik, with flags flying and children given the afternoon of to mark the occasion.
Fast forward twenty one years to a rain soaked, cold and dark Thursday afternoon early in November and you would find me wandering around the back streets of Reykjavik looking for the mortal remains of this seventies avian superstar.
Aided by nothing more than a small soggy map to guide me to the Museum of Natural History I was rather surprised to find that the museum was behind a solid looking door in a building that for all the world looked like a disused warehouse. After climbing a concrete flight of stairs I arrived at the entrance paid my handful of króna to a rather startled little old man at the door he appeared a little surprised at the prospect of a visitor. I was soon hunting through the display cases full of rock types and lava samples all very interesting I am sure but they didn’t really float my boat.
The search was not in vane because there in a glass cabinet in a far corner of the room proudly stood the Great Auk, looking if truth be said rather moth eaten. I couldn’t help but feel that while it arrival might have been heralded, it was now in danger of being forgotten. And as on my way back to the hotel I passed the whaling boats tied up in the harbour I suspected that the lesson of the birds extinction may also have been forgotten.