Britain’s Last Great Auk Was Killed as a Witch

Chuck Banner | April 2nd, 2017

In July 1840, the last great auk in Britain was killed by three men on the island of St. Kilda in Scotland. Species have been regularly hunted to extinction throughout human history, so it is no surprise that the same fate befell the great auk, a bird that is similar in appearance to a penguin. What is surprising about the death of the last great auk in the British Isles is the reason for its murder: its killers suspected it was a witch.

The species had been on the decline since the start of the Little Ice Age in the 1600s. Further decimation by Europeans, who used their down to stuff pillows and who stole their eggs to sell to collectors, prompted Great Britain to pass a law in 1775 that banned hunting great auks for their feathers or eggs. Penalties could be severe, and there are reports of people being flogged for violating the law, but the damage had already been done. In addition, it was still legal to kill the birds to use as fishing bait or other purposes. By the early 1800s, auks had largely disappeared from British shores.

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It is no wonder, then, that the men who spied the last British great auk on the islet of Stac an Armin in St. Kilda’s, Scotland, were intrigued by it. They probably knew what kind of bird it was due to the legends that surrounded it on St. Kilda’s. They captured the auk and took it back to their cottage so they could think about what to do with it. They kept it there for three days.

At some point during the days of the bird’s captivity, a fierce storm blew up. The men were trapped alone in their bare shelter, unable to return to the main island of St. Kilda’s. The isolation and fear of the storm must have affected their minds in some way, as they began to suspect that the great auk in their possession was actually a witch with the power to create the storm that now assaulted them. The men decided to kill the bird to try to stop the storm, and they reportedly beat it to death with either stones or sticks. Soon, the storm passed, and they left the body of the bird behind.

Thus ended the life of the last great auk in Britain. Not long after this, the bird species was completely killed off when the last known pair were hunted down in Iceland, and their lone egg accidentally crushed. Now, the only place you can see a great auk is in a museum, where some taxidermied bodies are kept. Sadly, the practice of killing the birds to be used as preserved specimens in museums and private collections was one of the practices that led to their extinction.

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