Art. XII.—Notes on an Egg of Alca impennis, Linn., in the Collection of the writer.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, July 16, 1870.]
Alca impennis, Linn.; Great Auk, or Gare-fowl; the Geir fugl of the Iceianders;—is the rarest of the Alcidœ, and probably also, it is the rarest bird of the northern hemisphere.
Various authors have described it as living, except during the breeding season, almost habitually at sea, where its wondrous powers of swimming and diving procured for it a constant supply of food; we know from good authority that formerly it was to be found at St. Kilda, the Orkney and Faröe Islands, Iceland, etc., but however numerous the flocks then met with, in various parts of the stormy northern seas or its rocky ice-bound shores the Gare-fowl rapidly became scarce. Perhaps its numbers were diminished to satisfy the craving appetites of hal-frozen whalers and sealers, whose visits too would most probably take place during the breeding season, when the brief summer opened up a track for the vessels through boisterous seas, haunted with floating icebergs. I think Henry Hudson, the old navigator of those inclement seas, intended the Gare-fowl when he wrote:—“They killed and brought with them a great fowle, whereof there were many and likewise some eggs.” There was evidently no close time or fence month observed for the Great Auk; bird and egg was equally welcome to those “toilers of the sea.”
So rare at last became this sea-fowl, that the only specimen the British Museum possessed for many years, was the bird obtained by Mr. Bullock, and which was purchased at his sale, May, 1819. The curious naturalist will find in the catalogue of that great sale of zoological curiosities:—“Lot 43; Great Auk (Alca impennis), a very fine specimen of this exceedingly rare bird, killed at Papa Westra, in the Orkneys, the only one taken on the British coast for many years,” etc.
So long a period has elapsed since a living specimen has been observed, that many naturalists, amongst them Professor Owen, are inclined to regard its extinction as an accomplished fact, for, notwithstanding the scientific explorations, more or less exhaustive, which have characterized the various Arctic expeditions, not a single instance of the occurrence of the Gare-fowl is recorded.
From notes and observations of various travellers, sportsmen, and collectors,
who have been led to visit the high latitudes of Iceland and other places, we believe that the Gare-fowl still exists and breeds on some of the surf-beaten Skärs and Skerries, where a frightful surge almost perpetually rages, and denies access to the boldest explorer. (Would that some of our rarer birds could be sheltered from impending extinction by a barrier as secure, and thus be saved from the destructive attacks of the mercenary plunderer.)
The author of Ten Years in Sweden, writes:—“I do not believe this bird is extinct, although not one has been seen or an egg taken for several years.
The value of this bird is as well known in the North as in England.”
So highly is an example of this bird esteemed in collections, that in Wood's Natural History of Birds, a list is given of all those specimens of the bird or egg which are known to exist in the various museums, and public and private collections, throughout Europe and America, recording the number of specimens which each country possesses.
Baring-Gould, in his Iceland, its Scenes and Sagas, who contributes a fund of valuable information as to the probable habitat of the Gare-fowl, makes the total number larger than that given by the Rev. J. G. Wood.
For several years I could boast of having three of the eggs in my possession; Dr. Meyer, the author of British Birds and their Eggs, inspected and made notes of these ornithological treasures. When, in 1853, I parted with some portion of my collections, one of these rare eggs was purchased at public auction for £30. This was commented on by some of the serials of that date as an extraordinary fact.
The egg which the drawing exhibited is intended to represent, and the smallest of the three mentioned above, measures in length 4 inches 8 lines, by 2 inches 10 ½ lines in breadth; it is white, slightly soiled in two or three places with dull yellow, marked and oddly streaked, principally at the larger end, with black and blackish brown.
Some twenty years ago very excellent imitations of the Auk's egg were manufactured in France; they were intended to fill up the place of the real egg in the cabinets of oologists; some of these specimens soon crossed the English Channel, and attempts were made to pass them off as genuine. I well remember the pleasure with which a communication was received from a leading naturalist and dealer, that he was at length in possession of some eggs of the Great Auk; on examining these so-called eggs, I was at once struck with their weight, absence of pores, and the extraordinary fact that all were alike, mark for mark; on placing one of my own specimens before my correspondent, he saw at once that he had been gulled, and admitted that he had been cheated out of £18 for half-a-dozen specimens in plaster-of-paris; he, however, fell back on the doubtful consolation that he was not the only sufferer, for, according to a police report of a charge of obtaining money under false pretences, a brother naturalist had been similarly cajoled.