________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2016


The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk.

Jan Thornhill.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2016.
44 pp., hardcover & pdf, $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-865-5 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55498-866-2 (pdf).

Subject Headings:
Great auk-Juvenile literature.
Great auk-Ecology-Juvenile literature.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Gillian Richardson.

**** /4



For more than two hundred years the Great Auk and its eggs were so plentiful it seemed the supply would never run out. Then its numbers began to dwindle. Noticeably. By the end of the 1600s, all but one of its western nesting colonies had completely collapsed. It was simple arithmetic. Every egg eaten was an egg that would never hatch, and every Great Auk killed was a Great Auk that would never again rear young.

The last stronghold was the island off the coast of Newfoundland that the Beothuk had canoed to every year, where uncountable numbers of Great Auks had once nested. Known as Funk Island for its funky bird-dropping smell, by the late 1700s it was home to only a few hundred pairs of auks each spring.

There was an attempt to save the Funk Island auk. A petition was issued that banned both killing it for its feathers and stealing its eggs. The penalty was public flogging. It was one of the earliest efforts to save an endangered animal.

But it came too late. By 1800, not a single pair could found nesting on the island.

We are all concerned about the prospects for endangered species under the threats of climate change, pollution, declining habitat and human activities such as poaching. As long as some members of an animal population still exist, there is hope. But The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk focuses on a bird that vanished 172 years ago, the Great Auk. It examines the causes of the bird's demise which include a combination of its own inability to fly and relentless human hunting for food, feathers, skin and eggs. Jan Thornhill, an award-winning nature storyteller, describes the struggles of this extraordinary species to survive against all odds. The story is a fascinating historical account as stunning as the infamous tales of extinctions of the North American Passenger Pigeon in 1914, or the flightless Dodo bird of Mauritius in the 17th century, both as a result of overhunting.

      The Great Auk may be less familiar. Although unrelated to the southern penguin— a name some once called it—its appearance was similar. It stood tall and walked upright on strong webbed feet, wore black and white feathers, had stunted wings only used for swimming and took to land only to lay its single egg. Nesting on North Atlantic cliffs and rocky islands offered protection from most predators, but the arrival of humans changed all that. Cave paintings of Stone Age people showed they hunted it (as far south as the Mediterranean during the Ice Age), and they were followed by northern seafaring Vikings, Inuit, Beothuk and most destructively, Europeans. The last pair was captured and killed on a small island off Iceland. Great Auks now only exist as stuffed museum specimens, or eggs kept by collectors.

      The sad tale of how the species vanished is presented here in rich detail. Thornhill paints a portrait of a remarkably well-adapted bird that, despite its overall size and huge beak, exhibited no aggressive defence. Readers will learn that, throughout the centuries, sustainable hunting provided a good return. She deftly recounts the challenges of the human hunters who found the birds on remote, storm-lashed islands, how some created special canoes for the job, how the birds were revered, and how all parts were well used. The description of the later slaughter that decimated all but the last few of hundreds of thousands of auks is powerfully written, and the specific account of the death of the final pair and their egg is graphic and heart-wrenching. It will leave young readers with deep regrets for actions that ensured they would never be able to observe such a grand creature.

      However, the author offers a note of reconciliation in the final pages. We learn that other seabird species have found suitable habitat where Great Auks once nested: their bodies decomposed to create soil on rocky island where puffins now excavate burrows. As a more enlightened view of nature emerged, conservationists established protected ecological reserves and hunting bans. The reader is invited to share this inclusive attitude and appreciate the value of every species. This dramatic story is timely as opportunities arise for young people to work for future solutions to environmental challenges.

      The bold illustrations in this generous-sized picture book "were created on computer by drawing and painting" in a software program, a clever way to show the multitudes of auks populating rocky islands, as well as their ghosts that influenced today's habitat. The image of a single Great Auk amid a swirling congregation of fish, for instance, attests to its skill as a swimmer and fisher. The vastness of the sea through which a lone Inuit hunter navigates his kayak is equally striking. With a focus on the enormity of the auk's world, the impact of its disappearance is all the more tragic.

      A Glossary, list of various nations' names for the Great Auk, a List of Extinct Species and References complete this well-researched book and will reinforce discussions of this topic.

Highly Recommended.

Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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