|"Museum" page from The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk (Jan Thornhill)|
While working on my new book about the extinction of the "northern penguin," The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, I became aware that the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto was in possession of Canada's only stuffed one. Hoping to see it, I visited the ROM's brilliant Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, but was disappointed to find no Great Auk, though there was an equally extinct Labrador Duck on display. How sad, I thought, that the regal bird I sought was not on view, was instead tucked away in some dark cupboard, sealed, perhaps, inside a titanium box, safe, but invisible.
|The extinct Labrador Duck (John James Audubon)|
|Me and Canada's only Great Auk (Frankie Thornhill)|
|Because Audubon painted birds life-size, he had to double |
over the biggest ones to make them fit on the pages.
Audubon included the Great Auk in the book, but he never saw one alive. He had to base his painting on a taxidermy model, a specimen killed in Iceland in 1830 that he bought in London in 1836.
|Audubon's Great Auks|
Eventually, Audubon gave has stuffed auk to a birder friend, Jacob Post Giraud Jr., who, in turn, gifted it (along with the rest of his large collection of stuffed birds) to Vassar College in 1867. There, "Audubon's Auk" gathered dust—quite literally—for more than 50 years, until it was found under a lab sink by Dr. L.C. Sanford who had connections to the American Museum of Natural History. Though the college continued to own the bird, Sanford convinced them in 1921 to allow him to send the auk off for renovation and remounting. When it was all spiffy again, it wasn't sent back to Vassar, but was housed instead at the Museum of Natural History in New York, hidden away in a double crate for the next 43 years.
|The friendly face of the Royal Ontario Museum's Great Auk|
|Signs on a door in the ROM's ornithology department (Frankie Thornhill)|
|The ROM's Great Auk came from Eldey Island in Iceland,|
the last place these birds nested after a volcanic eruption caused safer Geirfuglasker to sink beneath the waves. (Jan Thornhill)
|A tiny sample of the ROM's 11,715 bird egg collection (Frankie Thornhill)|
For a while there was a question about whether or not museums should waste precious space storing so many skins and eggs, especially when some species are represented by multiple specimens. The ROM's collection wasn't culled, which is fortunate because it has become clear that these lovingly stored remains hold a treasure trove of information that no one a hundred years ago could have imagined: DNA. When the DNA from skins of birds of the same species that were collected in different places, or ones collected from similar locations but years apart, is compared, we can learn a lot about how our world has changed, and how it continues to change.
|Nine of the ROM's 136,350 study skins (Frankie Thornhill)|
|Great Auk bones collected on Funk Island (Frankie Thornhill)|
|Me giddily holding an extinct Great Auk's skull and beak (Frankie Thornhill)|
There's only one thing that could have been better. To see an actual, living Great Auk. But, of course, that would be impossible, since the Great Auk has been extinct since 1844. But,wait! Maybe in the future it won't be impossible. Stay tuned for my next post about efforts to resurrect the Great Auk!
I made Great Auk cookies for my book launch!
published by Groundwood Books