The Bizarre Story of Britain’s Last Great Auk

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Great Auk: Nature Picture Library, Alamy. Hat, storm: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Great Auk: Nature Picture Library, Alamy. Hat, storm: iStock.

Sailing near the remote Scottish island of St Kilda, Laughlan McKinnon sighted a strange bird napping on a rocky sea stack. It didn’t resemble most other birds he'd seen near these waters. It wasn’t a gull or a puffin. Plump and tuxedoed, it stood 3 feet tall and had comedically short 6-inch wings.

Today, a casual observer could be forgiven for confusing the bird, a great auk, for a penguin. The black-and-white creature was clumsy on land but a torpedo in the sea. It feasted on fish and had a low, croaking scream. It was flightless, monogamous, and nested in some of the world’s iciest, and most rugged, territory. In fact, the auk lent its name to modern penguins: Its scientific name was Pinguinus impennis. When early explorers discovered flightless birds in the southern hemisphere, they called the creatures penguins because of their resemblance to the great auk. (The birds, however, are biologically unrelated.)

For centuries, great auks occupied the chilly islands near Iceland, Greenland, and northern Scotland. According to Samantha Galasso at Smithsonian, an 18th century sailor wrote that Newfoundland’s Funk Island was so congested with auks that “a man could not go ashore upon those islands without boots, for otherwise they would spoil his legs, that they were entirely covered with those fowls, so close that a man could not put his foot between them.”

Which is to say the birds were easy to kill. Great auks had no fear of humans; a person could easily walk up to a bird and strangle it—and many did. In 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote that he was able to fill two boatloads of dead auks in just half an hour. He compared the activity to packing a ship with stones.

An auk, after all, was worth more dead than alive. Locals valued its meat, which fishermen used as food and bait. Sailors coveted the oil rendered from the bird’s fat. Pillow-makers prized the auk's feathers. By the 16th century, the bird’s population had plummeted so quickly that conservation laws were written to protect it. By the 1770s, the island of St. John's in Canada had outlawed feather- and egg-collecting and penalized criminals with public floggings. But that didn’t stop people from killing the birds: As the population of great auks dropped, the profits to be made only increased.

So when Laughlan McKinnon saw an auk around July 1840, it's likely he and his two companions had money on their minds. For an unknown reason, however, they made the unusual decision to take the bird alive: One of the men, Malcolm MacDonald, approached the snoozing bird, snagged it by the neck, and lassoed its legs together. Unsurprisingly, the auk woke and began to wail. And as the bird screamed, rain began to fall.

The men decided to wait out the storm in a small hut called a bothy, and they took the bird inside with them. One day passed. Then a second. Rain and wind continued to roar, and the swelling waves prevented the men from returning to their boats and heading home. By day three, the men, still cooped up in the bothy with the bird, were likely starting to go stir crazy. Adding to their headache was the bird itself, which kept screaming whenever anybody approached it.

Finally, as the story goes, the fishermen concluded that there was only one cause for their bad luck: The bird was no bird at all. It was a storm-conjuring witch.

And there was only one way to deal with a weather-controlling witch: They had to kill it. According to one account, the men beat the auk with two large stones (others say they used sticks) until it was lifeless. Decades later, historians learned that this bird was likely the last great auk in Great Britain.

Within five years, the last breeding pair of the species would suffer a similar—though less superstitious—fate. On the island of Eldey near Iceland, a mating pair of auks was strangled to death by a group of fishermen. At that moment, the female bird had been incubating an egg. As the men struggled to kill the auk, one of the fishermen stomped on the egg with his boot, effectively crushing the future of the species along with it.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Treat Your Feline This Holiday Season With Fancy Feast’s Cat Food Advent Calendar

Fancy Feast/Chewy
Fancy Feast/Chewy

In anticipation of the holiday season, many children and adults get to unwrap mini presents each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas day, during what's known as Advent. Though Advent itself dates back to the 4th century, the version we know today, complete with the chocolate-filled calendars, was popularized in the early 1900s. And apparently it's no longer just for humans, because Fancy Feast is letting your feline roommate in on the fun with this unique cat food Advent calendar, now available at Chewy for $23.

For the 24 days leading up to Christmas, your cat will get to enjoy a variety of different wet foods, including favorites like grilled salmon, chicken, and more. There is even a unique ornament included with each calendar featuring a cat in the shape of a heart that can go right onto your tree. (Also, don't be surprised to find your actual cat making its way into the middle of your tree; they're known climbers.)

Now while you enjoy your Advent calendars from brands like LEGO, Funko, and more, your cat will be able to join in on the fun as well. To learn more about Fancy Feast's Feastivites Advent Calendar, head on over to Chewy.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.