By Bob Bahr
Let me tell you about the Great Auk.
I offer this because on Sept. 12, visitors to the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) had the chance to see three representations of the Great Auk, a flightless bird that lived in the waters and along the coasts of the North Atlantic, from Greenland to northern Spain. I say “representations” because the last Great Auk died in 1844 off the coast of Iceland.
At the CMC, this bird dominated the entry to a new exhibition titled “In the Audubon Tradition: Birds of a Feather.” On the left-hand side hung a painting by John A. Ruthven of a Great Auk diving off a rock. On the right hung a painting of two auks done by John James Audubon, the father of American ornithology. In the center was a stuffed skin of a Great Auk—a treasure.
The exhibition, on view now, is a convergence of several themes that fit in the mission of the CMC. John James Audubon was one of the first employees of the Western Museum, which became the Museum of Natural History & Science at the CMC. John A. Ruthven is a pillar around which the CMC built itself, having donated his first skin—a hummingbird—to the museum at the age of 10, and served in various capacities over the subsequent eight decades. The final component of the exhibition is more than 250 pieces from contemporary wildlife artists—Ruthven’s peers, all of whom were undoubtedly influenced in some way or another by Audubon. The contemporary artists were selected and organized by the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation.
But back to the auk.
The Great Auk had 6-inch wings that helped navigate in water but did not allow the bird to fly. It stood almost 3 feet high and weighed 11 lbs. It laid its eggs on bare rock with the parents taking turns incubating the egg. Distinctive grooves on its heavy, thick beak allowed it hold its prey: fish.
Exact information on the Great Auk is lacking. Most of the knowledge we have of them comes from sailors, who had different intellectual priorities than scientists—primarily, hunger. But from a smattering of firsthand accounts, and the existing skins of the Great Auk held in museums and collections, and through study of the auk’s closest living relative—the razorbill—scientists feel confident in asserting a few hypotheses regarding the Great Auk. It was a strong swimmer, with some of the more spectacular claims stating that it was capable of diving as deep as 3,000 feet underwater, although that kind of dive was taxing, likely rare, and altogether wholly unconfirmed. Ornithologists believe that the Great Auk primarily hunted in shallow shoaling areas near the shore, feeding on menhaden and capelin for the most part, with sculpin, cod, lumpsuckers, and sand lance rounding out their menu. They were capable of accelerating in the water with enough speed to pop out and land on a rock. Great Auk were believed to have had a lifespan of up to 25 years.
A few traits made the Great Auk particularly vulnerable to extinction. It was totally unafraid of humans, and there are journal entries from explorers describing how one could simply walk up to an auk and strangle it. Its warm down feathers, which allowed it to swim in the cold North Atlantic, was in demand in Europe. The bird was an important food source going back to the time of the Neanderthals, and ancient graves of indigenous people in Newfoundland have been found with as many as 200 Great Auk beaks in them, suggesting that the bird was important as a symbol, as well as being a food source. Fossil remains show that the Great Auk existed at least 500,000 years ago. The Great Auk became extinct within 300 years of first contact with European mariners, according to DeVere Burt, SKB board member and director emeritus of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History & Science.
Audubon never saw a living Great Auk (although the last one didn’t die until 10 years after Audubon finished his watercolor of a pair of them). He worked from skins, and perhaps skeletons. Obviously, Ruthven hasn’t seen one, either. But at the entrance to the “In the Audubon Tradition” exhibition, a specimen featuring a rare Great Auk skin, Audubon’s painting of the bird, and Ruthven’s rendition all shared the same dramatic space. The stuffed Great Auk did not have a comment to offer at the exhibition’s opening, and Audubon’s painting simply spoke wordlessly about the devotion that the 19th Century ornithologist brought to his elephantine task of putting all of North America’s birds in one giant folio. Ruthven, in contrast, was merry about the occasion—and about his painting sharing such august company at the Cincinnati museum. “It’s quite a thrill and an honor,” Ruthven said.
Beyond the vestibule of the exhibition at the CMC where the Great Auk holds court, a potent collection of contemporary wildlife artists remains on display through December 2019. Nearly all of the pieces are for sale, with proceeds shared between the museum and the artists. SKB has been involved in quite a number of prestigious museum shows, but this one is likely the largest, most diverse, and best presented of any of them. Visit “In the Audubon Tradition: Birds of a Feather” before this stellar collection is disassembled and the collectors claim their purchases. Ω