The Great Auk was a bird of the genus Alca, which also includes the Little Auk, Common Murre, Razor Bill and Atlantic Puffin. All of these species live or lived in the North Atlantic. The Great Auk was the largest of these birds and could grow up to 70 cm in height. Some of the other Alca birds had bright or whitish abdomens and dark-black backs, with a characteristic white spot on each side of the head, between the eyes and eye socket. They were flightless birds, with wings that were as small as the South Atlantic penguin. It was fast in the water when hunting fish but very clumsy on land.
The Great Auk lived in large colonies along the coast on both sides of the North Atlantic, so far south that remains of the bird are found in Stone Age and Viking Age kitchen middens.
The bird’s fate was sealed because it was easy to hunt and butcher. Already in the 15th century, the Great Auk was more or less extinct in Northern Europe but large colonies remained in Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Baffin Island and Labrador. When cod fishing began in Newfoundland and whale hunting began in the North Atlantic, the Great Auk’s fate was sealed. The fishing and hunting boats only had supplies for the trip out, so the Great Auk was taken alive or butchered onboard the boats for the return journey.
The most famous colony was on the Penguin Islands (called Funk Island today), which lies north east of Newfoundland. The last Great Auks were killed in 1801-1802. At that point people were aware of how rare the bird had become and European museums were willing to pay a fortune to get hold of the skin of the Great Auk before it became extinct. The last Great Auks were taken in 1844 on the small island Eldey south of Reykjanes, Iceland but there were unconfirmed observations of the Great Auk in Vardø in Norway in 1848 and several times in Greenland in the 1850s. But the bird is now extinct.
The Great Auk was a summer visitor to the Faroe Islands but there was never any evidence that it bred there. The last bird was taken at Stóra Dímun on 1 July 1808.
There exist a few stuffed examples of the Great Auk, for example Iceland purchased a pair that can be seen today in the Natural History Museum of Iceland. The Zoological Museum in Copenhagen has used the Great Auk as a logo for many years. Ole Worm's Museum Wormianum in Copenhagen was sent a living Great Auk. It was drawn showing a ring around its neck, which meant that it had been tethered.
The Great Auk is an example of a bird that was hunted to extinction purely because of a lack of knowledge about its population distribution. The fishermen of the day cannot be reproached for this, since they did not have the benefit of modern communication technology. But the museums could have perhaps tried to save the Great Auk rather than have helped to deliver the final blow.
Latin: Ovis aries
In the summer of 1844, the then Danish Crown Prince, who would later go on to become King Frederik VII, visited the Faroe Islands. Among the royal entourage was a young zoologist by the name of Japetus Steenstrup, who had been sent by the Royal Natural History Museum of Denmark to collect specimens for the museum. In the Zoological Museum’s collection records of 23 August 1844, it states:
“HRH the Crown Prince with Professor Steenstrup gave the following items to the museum:
1. 18-foot skeleton of Delphinus globiceps (pilot whale).
2. The feral variety of the Faroese sheep. No hair at the base of the horns or around the ears. The skull was loose.
3. Second specimen. Well preserved. The skull was loose.
4. The same juvenile. Male lamb. Well preserved. The skull was loose.
In 1983, the three specimens were returned to the Faroe Islands as part of the opening of Nordic House in the Faroe Islands and today they can be seen in the National Museum of the Faroe Islands.
The sheep are small and black and look a little like the more primitive feral Soay sheep that live on the island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. They are called the goat-horned sheep, because both sexes have horns, though the ewe’s horns are smaller and more delicate than the ram’s horns. The Dímun sheep are more developed compared to the Soay sheep, which have the wild sheep’s light belly. Woollen garments recovered from Bronze Age burial sites have the same kind of wool and structure that is found on the Dímun sheep, so even at this early stage, wool from these sheep was being used.
The three sheep from Stóra Dímun were among the last of the original sheep in the Faroe Islands, and were perhaps brought by the Vikings. In an excavation in Eiði in the north end of Eysturoy, half a skull of the same kind of sheep was found. The Vikings brought their own sheep to Iceland and Greenland and almost certainly when they came to the Faroe Islands. Around 1600, almost all of the sheep on the Faroe Islands were wiped out by disease. New sheep were introduced from Shetland and Iceland. But the small black sheep on Lítlu Dímun managed to survive, although by 1860 they were finally wiped out by hunting.
A description of the final shooting of the last sheep on Lítlu Dímun exists. On 5 February 1911, the Justice of the Peace R. Müller wrote in the Danish newspaper Nationaltidende: “The remaining sheep were so wild that they would rather jump in into the abyss than be caught, especially some of the old rams and ewes, who were impossible to get near. So you had to take your rifle and shoot the last of them. The late J. Mortensen, merchant and founder of the largest trading establishment in the Faroe Islands, was a gifted shooter and he told me that he shot several of these sheep and that he had shot the last of them, an old ram that was so careful that shooting it cost him a great deal of effort.”
Values: stamps of 13,00 and 21,0 kr
Date of issue: 20-II-2012
Artist:: Astrid Andreassen
Stamp size: 40 x 22,5 and 22,5 x 40 mm
Printer: Cartor Security printing, France