Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Auk

AUK, a name common to several species of sea-fowl belonging, with one exception, to the family Alcidce. Of these, special interest attaches to the Great Auk, or Gare- fowl (Alca impennis), from the circumstance that there is no authentic record of its having been taken, or even seen alive, for more than a quarter of a century. In the autumn of 1821 Dr Fleming, while on a cruise through the Hebrides, observed and described one which had been taken alive in the sea off St Kilda and put on board the yacht. With a rope attached to one of its legs, this specimen was occasionally allowed to disport itself in its native element, where it astonished every one by the rapidity with which it swam under water. On one of these occasions it got loose from its bonds, and was soon beyond reach of pursuit. Another specimen had been observed a few years before off Papa Westra, one of the Orkney Islands, but in spite of the exertions of the crew of a six-oared boat, continued for several hours, the auk could not be overtaken. This specimen, however, was afterwards secured, and is now in the British Museum. The Great Auk measures about three feet in length, has a large bill, but wings so small as to be totally useless for flying, serving, however, as powerful swimming organs It is said to have laid a single egg on the bare rock, usually, from the inability of the bird to rise on wing to the higher cliffs, close to the water edge. Its food, according to Fabricius, consisted of the lump- sucker and other fishes of a similar size. From the earliest existing accounts, the Great Auk does not appear to have ever been more than an occasional visitant to the British Isles, and then chiefly to the sea around St Kilda and the Orkneys, while Iceland, the Faroes, and the islets about Newfoundland, appear to have been its proper home. The probability that this bird is now totally extinct gives special value to the remains of it now existing. These, according to Professor Newton, are as follows : 71 or 72 skins, 9 skeletons, 38 or 41 detached bones of different birds, and 65 eggs. The other Auks are the Puffin, the Razorbill, and the Little Auk, all widely distributed along the northern-temperate and Arctic coasts.