Great Auk is a large, extinct, penguin-like bird that was once found in the
north Atlantic in both North America, and Europe. They were the
largest of the "Alcids", birds which include the more familiar puffins of
the Americas. They were the only member of the genus Pinguinus, and
were also the only flightless alcid. The species was evidently once
relatively common across parts of the North Atlantic, although nesting
colonies were relatively uncommon, given the specie's specific habitat
requirements for nesting. The species was hunted for food and for
their downy feathers for many centuries, and breeding colonies in the
European side of the Atlantic were largely gone by the 1600s.
Persecution of the species was also rampant in North America after European
colonization. The last known breeding attempts were in 1840s, and the
last known sighting of the bird was in 1852.
Habitat: During the nesting season, Great Auks
required isolated, rocky islands with sloping shorelines for easy access,
and plentiful nearby food supplies. Breeding colonies may never have
numbered more than a couple of dozen. When not breeding, they roamed
widely in the North Atlantic, often far from shore.
Diet: Fed almost exclusively on fish.
Behavior: Foraged by diving for fish, with the
capability to dive much deeper than other alcids. Foraging was often
in flocks, with some evidence that the species cooperatively foraged.
Great Auks were pelagic at nearly all seasons, never coming ashore except
during the nesting season.
Nesting: The Great Auk nested colonial, with large
nesting colonies found in only a few well-established and suitable
locations. Pairs tended to one egg, laid on a shallow depression on
the ground. Both parents would incubate the egg, and both would help
to raise the young. Great Auk pairs may have mated for life.
Song: Breeding colonies were evidently noisy
places, with Great Auks making a variety of croaking sounds.
Migration: Breeding occurred in only a few known
rocky islands. Non-breeding birds could be found in many locations
throughout the North Atlantic. After breeding, breeding pairs and
their young dispersed at sea, and in winter, there was some movement of
populations to the south. In North America, wintering birds could be
found along coastlines in New England, although rarely there were sightings
Unique. The Great Auk was not only much larger than other alcids, but
they were the only flightless alcid. The
Razorbill is generally considered the closest living relative of the
Conservation Status: Extinct, with the last of the
species seen in the 1840s or 1850s.
Image Information: Colored pencil drawing by Terry
Sohl - January 2012