Saturday, 8 March 2014

In life and death ...

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

Just over a year ago I posted an article about my good friend and professional wildlife artist, Tony Ladd. Since then, a lot of detailed research and late nights have been undertaken in his studio. The result, a series of stunning limited edition prints and hollow, cast egg replicas of the Great Auk. During Tony’s research period he was invited to view, photograph and carefully measure, including shell thickness, 2 of the remaining 75 Great Auk eggs in existence. Tony describes ‘They were extraordinary, very large for the size of bird and covered in an array of intricate blotches, scribbles and fine brush like strokes’. This now gave him the most accurate data possible to produce his current range of replica specimens. Tony has already been commissioned to produce facsimiles of several of the 75 eggs known to be in existence today.


In June 1844 on the small remote island of Eldey, which rises from the North Atlantic about 10 miles (16km) off the south-western tip of the Icelandic mainland, the last pair of Great Auk’s met their fate …

Tradition has it that local fishermen had been paid by a Danish dealer to collect any specimens or eggs - their capture could attain handsome profits for the locals and satisfied the passion amongst natural history collectors of the era. With the hunters on the rocky outcrop the two remaining birds tried desperately to evade capture and mingle within the vast seabird colonies that also nested on the island. Once spotted, the Auks, unable to fly, were doomed. The fishermen quickly administered the fatal blows, unknowingly putting an end to this legendary species. Perhaps this was the final end. But, more likely, a few others still clung to existence in the lonely outcrops in the far north. What seems certain, however, is that soon afterwards, somewhere in the deep cold waters of the North Atlantic the last of the Great Auk’s died (Zonfrillo, 1994; Fuller, 1999).

The Auk was clumsy on land, but more than compensated for this when taking to water. Under the ocean the sculpted dagger bill, lead the torpedo like body through the water. For propulsion the Auk had large webbed feet set well back. This gave the bird its tremendous turn of speed, perfect for twisting seal-like through the currents, seizing its prey with its beautifully designed beak. The fundamental difference between the Great Auk and its living, breathing cousins - which includes the Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills - was the small flightless wing. It would never enable the bird to take to the air, and had evolved to steer with amazing agility the large bulky body beneath the waves. These bursts of speed enabled the bird to spear with ease, the abundance of fish it targeted as prey (Fuller, 1999).

They would spend ten months of the year at sea; only needing solid ground for the purpose of attracting a mate, nesting and rearing their single chick. Being flightless the choice of island was critical – the terrain needing to provide ease of access at any phase of the tide. These far reaching places had no natural predators and life was good. Upon these colony strongholds, the Auks would jostle for their own tiny piece of real estate, fiercely protected by birds that would mate for life. Both parents incubated the single large egg, which had a pyriform (pear-shaped) appearance, designed to roll in a tight turning circle should it become dislodged from its craggy backdrop (Fuller, 1999). The islands formed a summer haven with safety in numbers - or so they thought …

During the 16th century, voyages to discover the New World meant that tired and starving ships crews passed close by these bustling outcrops in the sea. Landing parties soon discovered the abundance of a readily available food source that was easy to catch - a survival godsend. The birds put up little defence and provided much needed dietary protein and oils for candlelight. Almost overnight these supreme predators had turned prey. The killing for food was just the start of the their troubles. By the 1700’s, man had realised that the Auk’s extra thick layer of waterproof down was a desirable alternative to the down of the Eider and that the larger feathers made beautiful decorations for ladies hats. During the summer months make shift factories were set up on the Auk’s favoured islands. Here thousands of birds were corralled into holding pens before being killed and boiled down for their fat or stripped of their feathers. This systematic killing meant that over the subsequent years, vast colonies were completely destroyed (Birkhead, 1994; Fuller, 1999).

The Victorians were well known for their collecting of a whole array of natural history specimens including fossils, shells, eggs, taxidermy and newly discovered flora and fauna. Preserved specimens of the Great Auk and its eggs were highly prized and, due to their rarity value, traded ownership for vast sums of money. Although the collectors of this period may have been responsible for its final demise, the Great Auk had already been extensively persecuted to the point of near extinction (Birkhead, 1994; Fuller, 1999). There are only 81 mounted skin specimens, 24 complete skeletons and 2 sets of innards (the last two) in existence today. Of their eggs - these number just 75 examples (Birkhead, 1994).

If the egg is nature's miracle of new life, then the artistic fortitude and creations of Tony Ladd are the benchmark by which other avian wildlife artists must be judged. He is currently working on a new and exciting long-term project, which, for now, must remain under wraps.

Watch this space …

Tony can be contacted at


Birkhead, T., 1994. How collectors killed: One hundred and fifty years ago next week the last two great auks ever seen were killed at their breeding colony on a tiny island off the coast of Iceland. New Scientist. Issue 1927, pp. 24-27.
Fuller, E., 1999. The Great Auk. Southborough, Kent: Errol Fuller.
Zonfrillo, B., 1994. In Memorium: Garefowl or Great Auk. British Birds 87(6), pp. 269-270.

BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Pinguinus impennis. Downloaded from on 22nd February 2014.

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