The Auk, Great and Little

Pinguinus impennis & Plautus alle

The great auk, now extinct, was the Northern Hemisphere’s only flightless diving bird, a flamboyant, goose-sized, stubby-winged creature which had the dubious distinction of being called geirfugl, garfuge, gearbhul, aponar, binocle, moyack, the “penguin,” and the wobble, as well as “so very fat” and “exceeding fat” by explorers, settlers, Norsemen, and sundry plunderers of yesteryear.

One of its last habitats was the aptly named Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. As great auks could not fly, they were easily surrounded by fishermen and driven into stone pounds, where they were systematically killed. These poor geirfugl were immersed in large kettles of boiling water, and their feathers were plucked. According to contemporary sources, their bodies were tossed like logs onto the fires, turning into fuel to heat the water. Wobble feathers were sold and stuffed into pillows and quilts. Wobble eggs were salted and sold for a few pence a dozen.

Possibly the last remaining great auk was picked up dead in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, in 1853.

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—Anne Landsman

Anne Landsman’s first novel, The Devil’s Chimney, was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award, QPB’S New Voices, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and the M-Net Book Prize (South Africa). She was born and raised in South Africa.

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