Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Awk-ward ramblings

A brief bird story for July 3rd, the 168th anniversary of the death of the last Great Auk (pinguinus impennis). The Great Auk was like a giant puffin, about two-and-a-half feet in height and ten pounds or so in weight. With a range that spanned the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Scandinavia to the south Atlantic coast of France, the Great Auk was given the double curse of being both tasty and covered in an exceptionally soft down.

Cover him in barbecue sauce, or use him like a pillow!

This led to many auks becoming pillows, or auk burgers, or even just used as fishing bait. By the late 18th century, the Auk was dying off. In a move of environmental protection the US Fish & Wildlife Service could only dream of, a 1775 statute in St. John's, Newfoundland allowed for the public flogging of those caught taking the eggs or feathers of the Great Auk.

Such radical environmentalism was not enough to save the bird: in the early 19th century, as more scientists and museums realized the bird was rapidly disappearing, they launched a struggle to secure specimens for their collections with a drive and intensity not unlike some parents' holiday bloodlust to secure a Tickle-Me-Elmo for their pleading progeny. 

Or Cabbage Patch Kids. Or Razor scooters. Or THIS memorable guy...

The last Great Auk in Britain was found on a tiny island off the Scottish coast in 1840.  Locals caught it, tied it up, then beat it to death shortly thereafter. [In their defence, they were convinced the bird was a witch.] The last known breeding pair of Great Auks were captured in the act of incubating an egg and effortlessly strangled in 1844, their bodies stuffed to be entered into a private collection.

Your loyal blogger hopes your love of birds leads you to not kill them. In fact, we hope it leads you to celebrate them, and there's no better way to do that than to join us at the Library Society on July 24th at 5PM for a reception welcoming the Lasley Ornithology Collection to the Library.

In mid-May, we received a unique library of almost 200 ornithology books from the collection of the late James Bernard Lasley. The Library Society and the Lasley family will host a reception to welcome this wonderful addition into our Natural History collection. Jim Elliott, founder and Executive Director of the Avian Conservation Center will speak, with a reception to follow. As always, call 843.723.9912 or email us at rsvp@charlestonlibrarysociety to reserve your spot at the event.

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