Pinguinus impennis

  • The great auk was a large, flightless diving bird thought to have once numbered in the millions and distributed across the North Atlantic.
  • It is extinct since 1844, having been heavily exploited for its eggs, meat, and feathers.
  • Breeding colonies were found along the east coast of North America, especially on the islands off Newfoundland; islands off Iceland and Scotland; throughout Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden), andwith evidence of bone finds existing as far south as Florida and in to the Mediterranean.


Body length – 75 cm

Wing length – 15 cm

Physical Description

  • The bird had a black back and head, a white front, and a large white spot between the bill and eye.
  • The large black bill bore eight or more transverse grooves.
  • It stood erect on the land.
  • Its feet and short claws were black, while the webbed skin between the toes was brownish black.
  • The legs were far back on the bird’s body, which gave it powerful swimming and diving abilities.

Interesting facts

    • About 80 great auks and a like number of their eggs are preserved in museums.
    • The nearest living relatives are the razor-billed auks, about 40 cm long.
    • During summer, it developed a wide white eye patch over each eye and in  winter the great auk moulted and lost this eye patch, which was replaced with a wide white band and a gray line of feathers that stretched from the eye to the ear.

Causes for extinction

  • During the Little Ice Age of the 16th – 19th centuries, their breeding islands became accessible to polar bears, but even with their natural predators encroaching upon their territory, auks were a robust species.
  • The auks required very specific nesting conditions that restricted them to a small number of islands which provided them rocky terrain and sloping shorelines with access to the seashore. From mid-16th century when European sailors began to explore the seas of North Atlantic, utterly defenseless, great auks were killed by the sailors for food.
  • More than its meat, its feathers, fat, oil, and eggs were valued. The down industry (making pillows) in particular helped propel the bird to extinction.
  • Some conservation attempts were made in order to protect the bird’s future.
  • 1553 – the auk received its first official protection
  • 1775 – In St. John’s, individuals violating the law banning hunting the Great Auk for its feathers or eggs were publicly beaten, though hunting for use as fishing bait was still permitted.
  • 1794 – Great Britain banned the killing of this species for its feathers.
  • On the North American side, eider duck down was initially preferred for the industry, but once the eiders were nearly driven to extinction in the 1770s, down collectors switched to the auk.