A winter’s tale – the last true penguin?
December 1852, sailing home for Christmas, a highly respected ornithologist spotted what he believed to be a penguin off the coast of Newfoundland. The lone bird is widely believed to be the last sighting of the last true penguin.
Was it or wasn’t it?
Was it a penguin? Did he really see it and, if he did, was it really the last one? Hopefully, you are thinking, “No, no and no” so that this isn’t wasted on you. The answers are, in my opinion: yes and no, maybe and maybe but possibly not. The current IUCN and Bird International position (if you google: ‘great auk iucn’), to my surprise, is yes, yes and yes. I’m not saying these grand institutions are wrong. But I don’t accept what they accept on the evidence I’ve seen and I thought it would make an interesting conversation.
What it was (or wasn’t)
You may have guessed that what Drummond saw, thought he saw or claimed he saw was a great auk. Great auks are penguins and, at the same time, they’re not. Why not? Because they’ve been usurped. Long before sailors sailed in the southern seas. When what we now know as penguins (sphenicids in the order Sphenisciformes) were unknown to science or Europeans. Sailors, seamen and mariners were familiar with a bird that many called garefowl but celtic people called penguin.
There are conflicts over the name origin. If it is a celtic name, it seems most likely to me that the name means white head (Pen=head, gwyn=white). It’s a bit cumbersome as great auks (and penguins for that matter) have predominantly black heads. However, the great auk has a large white patch in front of the eye which would be visible from a distance and would distinguish them from many other ocean-going birds (as Drummond possibly did). The name penguin became widespread and was used by Pierre Bonaterre to form its scientific name in 1791.
Sphen Yorin Alkenson – we can all make up names, some are Frankensteinian, some get extinctified
Seeing the superficial resemblance between great auks (which are alcids) and spheniscids, the European mariners who encountered them gave them the same name and it stuck. Meanwhile, the original penguin, also known as garefowl, apponath, wobble, esaokitsok, geirfugl and reisenalk, was slipping into extinction. The name great auk probably rose to pre-eminence as the birds became more valuable to collectors. Some people did call southern penguins ‘gorfue’ (a corruption of garefowl or Geirfugl) but it slipped out of use too in an interesting north/south divide between these black and white birds, so similar in appearance but not closely related.
Keep the name and spread the word
We can’t change the common name of ‘penguins’ very easily now. ‘Great auk is a great name for the biggest auk ever. And bringing the great auk back is becoming more likely but tricky. Nobody would ever know if the Frankensteinian reconstructions behaved the same as their disconnected ancestors. But there is still some value to the great auk. For those of us who care about the diversity of life on earth, as well as for those who don’t. And I’d really like you to spread the word proactively if you don’t do it already.
Hey, Drummond. What did you see?
So now let’s consider the man aboard… our guy. His name is Henry but he is more formerly known as Colonel H.M. Drummond and he has just finished his ‘tour’ of Bermuda, Halifax and Nova Scotia serving with the 42nd Royal Highlanders. He’s about 38 years old and unmarried. Off the Newfoundland Banks, he sees a bird in the water that catches his attention. In his book, the Great Auk, Errol Fuller says… “he spied a creature he confidently believed to be a Great Auk. It passed withing 30 yards or so (27 metres) of the steamer he was aboard. As might be expected with such a man, Colonel Drummond-Hay was well equipped with field glasses. He distinctly noted the bill and the white patches before the eye and felt sure that he could not be mistaken.”
Fuller goes on to say that…
“The following year a dead bird was allegedly found on the shore of Trinity Bay on the eastern side of Newfoundland. Three years later another was supposedly caught on the island’s western shore.”Errol Fuller – The Great Auk
I’ve grown up understanding the last official record and technical date of extinction for Great auks to be 1844. It’s iconic but unlikely to be precise. The last birds killed by people, for which there was paperwork, eye witness statements and specimens, died around 6th June 1844. The species had become famously rare. The chances of these being the last two birds are acceptably, unlikely to most rational minds. Some birds may have lingered on, maybe breeding, maybe not, but they certainly dwindled away in the following few years. Their ultimate extinction, considering what they’d been through, is not surprising.
Any bird breeder or field conservationist knows that birds as diverse as macaws and penguins breed much better if there are other birds doing the same thing. Dummies and decoys are common tools in bird-craft. Communal birds keep an eye on other birds and their behaviour is stimulated by visual cues. Great auks probably lost their breeding momentum as their great rookeries dwindled away through the onslaught of human exploitation. Below a critical mass, I suspect they went into a terminal decline that could only have been reversed by human intervention or human extinction. Unfortunately, the value of the birds meant that the only human intervention was continued collection; possibly to the very last bird.
1844 is much cited as the date of great auk extinction – I’m about to do it – Errol Fuller titled a chapter 1844. December 1852 is 8 years later. There is no accepted record of breeding birds in the intervening period but Drummond’s account has been accepted by many including Birdlife International and the IUCN. With all due respect to these highly respectable organisations and Drummond himself, I don’t accept the 1852 record entirely. This may sound shocking, heretical even, and I haven’t seen Drummond’s actual account if he wrote one. But here are my reasons.
- Primarily there is no voucher specimen, just a story from a man on a ship
- Drummond’s account seems to be accepted because of his eminence in the field of ornithology but, without a specimen or photograph or other witnesses, it is not acceptable. I suspect Drummond himself would agree. He simply couldn’t prove it. I wish he had mounted an expedition to find them and prove what he saw. He could have saved the species.
- I can only presume that he really was a trustworthy fellow. But his anecdote is quite simply that, an anecdote, which suggests the great auks might have survived beyond 1844. What’s bizarre to me is that his December 1852 ‘record’ has resulted in an assumed extinction date of 1852. When it is highly likely that the bird would have lived another few weeks into 1853 and possibly many years more.
- In 1852 the great auk was the world’s most valuable and sort after bird. Its historical breeding sites were well known to bird and egg collectors and were doubtlessly investigated often and at the right time of year. But such investigations are unlikely to be recorded if nothing was found. The same people are likely to have seen great auks hanging around and, at 30 metres distance, could have bagged one. I think an obsessive birdman like Drummond could want to see one so much that he actually thought he did. I hope he did see it, but who can truly know? The last known rookery was Eldey Island and great auks were gold. It is possible, however doubtable, that the world’s last birds were in fact concentrated in that one spot on that day in 1844. Equally possible is that the last male or last female died that day.
- Errol Fuller’s great auk book is marvellous, I love it and cannot praise it highly enough. But on this subject it is tantalizing and a bit frustrating. He calls Drummond, ‘Drummond-Hay’, but Henry’s Wikipedia entry has him as not marrying Charlotte Hay (and taking her name) until 1859. To me that suggests a slight risk of inaccuracy. He consigns Drummond’s account (rightly in my opinion) to a chapter titled: Late records, anomalous sightings and cryptozoology. Saying that Drummond’s report is “hard to reject.” This is because of his impeccable credentials. He is described as an outstanding field naturalist, talented artist and first president of the British Ornithologist’s Union. This does not make him infallible, above doubt or his record scientifically acceptable. And he wouldn’t be the only impeccable man to make claims that just can’t be accepted completely. I think I believe him, but nobody can be sure now. He was a man longing for, or apprehensive of, his arrival on the other side of the Atlantic. Probably bored aboard and will have known he was in historical great auk territory; I suspect his mind was whirling. George Monbiot covers a sort of syndrome in the chapter called The Never Spotted Leopard his book Feral. About how the most honest, earnest people can think they have seen something. This may not have been the case with Drummond, but it could have been. So without further evidence, I won’t be accepting his record as certainty and will stick with the certain record of 1844. Drummond was not president of the BOU at the time of the alleged sighting. The group was formed 6 years later in 1858. So the bird was not spotted by the President of the BOU, as Fuller’s account could lead you to believe. But by the man who would later become President. I don’t know, but maybe his great auk sighting swung the decision towards his presidency?
Great Stories aren’t science
Here are some examples of why it is dodgy to accept anecdotes unconditionally from great men.
- Edmund Hillary – In the build up to the ascent of Everest Edmund Hillary, Norgay Tensing and the expeditions original leader Eric Shipton reported seeing Yeti footprints. Hilary returned to the Himalayas in 1960 specifically to search for yeti. He steadily became less convinced of what he saw. I’m not convinced that Yeti don’t or didn’t exist but footprints in melting snow don’t prove their existence.
- T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) – Included accounts in his meticulous history of his first world war experiences – The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – which caused it to be later widely considered a work of fiction.
- Jacques Cousteau – In his book Octopus and Squid spares a paragraph for an apparent encounter with a giant squid. Which would have made him the only person to see one in a natural state at that time and for many more years to come. Richard Ellis, in his book The Search for the Giant Squid cast serious doubt over the claim which is, at best, a muttered half claim. I fear this may be very similar to Drummond’s original account of his great auk encounter.
- Winston Churchill – wrote in 1947 of a conversation he had with his father’s ghost. I’m not anti-ghost but I’ve seen no scientific evidence and don’t think Churchill’s record amounts to that.
- Georg Steller, an otherwise impeccable and first rate scientific observer and very much no-nonsense guy, claimed to see (from a ship just like Drummond) a sea ape or sea monkey (Simia marina danica) in arctic waters which he observed for over 2 hours . He saw something but nobody knows what it actually was.
- Père David – discoverer, for western science, of the butterfly bush, the giant panda and the Père David’s deer, thought he had also discovered the habitat of the unicorn. One too many?
- Two of the greatest biologists of our time (among my favourite authors) Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson, accepted and threw their lot in with the evolutionary theory known as Inclusive Fitness. Which Wilson later wrote was “not just wrong, but fundamentally wrong”. In response to Wilson’s joint paper with two biological mathematicians, Dawkins urged people not to read it and to cast the book away with great force. Scientists do not always have their scientific heads on. And it is very easy to get carried away with something you want to believe..
Working in zoos and museums I have been called out to many sightings of ‘big cats’ or their signs. All proved, with little effort, to be mistakes, badgers, dogs, moggies or hoaxes.
All the above could be true, or honest mistakes. But they look ever more doubtful with time and cannot be considered, in my opinion, as scientific proof of encounters. Any more than Drummond’s possible great auk sighting can be. For which reason , I prefer to stick with 1844. Whilst acknowledging likely possibilities of non-breeding survivors luckily spotted but never proven; sorry Henry. Besides, I wrote a rhyme that rhymes with four, not a thing I can ignore. If that does not sit well with you, then stick with 1852.
I hope Colonel Henry Maurice Drummond did see a great auk if only for his sake. If they were alive but not breeding it makes their tale even more sad for me so in many ways. I prefer the abrupt end of 1844 when the last great auks woke up on their last morning with some hope of a future. And Drummond’s sighting, remains for me…
A winter’s tale.
Rest in peace Henry; I believe you, I just don’t think it fits the rigorous rules of science.