|THE GREAT AUK IN ART.|
U. S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE.
A CAREFUL examination and comparison of the available illustrations of the great auk leaves the mind in some doubt as to the appearance of this extinct, flightless bird. Some of these illustrations are found in recent publications, while others illuminate descriptive articles written over a century ago. A few voyagers, notably Richard Hakluyt, sometime preacher, and M. Martin, Gent., undoubtedly saw the bird in great abundance on certain islands of the north Atlantic which were notorious as the home of the auk—Hakluyt on the American side and Martin off the coast of Scotland. But neither of these travelers left even a rough sketch of what his eyes saw. Zoologists, naturalists, taxidermists and ornithologists have, however, given us their conception of the bird in black and white, and a number of their illustrations are reproduced and accompany this article.
Undoubtedly the only sources of inspiration for the earlier drawings are the written descriptions of the bird, or the attempts to reconcile several divergent descriptions by a plate which would strike a happy mean, the dried skin coming in later as a desirable artists' accessory. The mounted skin also has had a baneful influence upon the pencil of the artist, for in no other way can the differences in form and outline be understood or the reckless indifference to details be satisfactorily explained. Turning to the sources of inspiration which are chiefly responsible for the erroneous, visual evidence of extinction of as many species of great auk as there are drawings of the bird extant, we find that descriptions in detail force a most charitable view of the shortcomings of the pencil and brush. One would not be justified in charging superlative imaginative powers upon the artists, until the apparent mendacities of the writers had been explained. However, to careless observation and lack of familiarity with birds may be charged the majority of the mistakes of both pen and brush. A careful sifting of the available evidence seems to warrant the conclusion that the pictures of the great auk, heretofore published, are defective in many important particulars. These will lie considered later in detail.
In the following paragraphs descriptions of similar parts of the great auk, furnished by writers of the past 320 years, are grouped together making comparison easy and the fact that the quotations from some of these authors cover but a point or two does not render the information given by them any the less interesting. That but three