Thursday, May 14, 2015

the last book I ever read (Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, excerpt three)

from the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for General Nonfiction The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert:

It’s been estimated that when Europeans first landed at Funk Island, they found as many as a hundred thousand pairs of great auks tending to a hundred thousand eggs. (Probably great auks produced only one egg a year; these were about five inches long and speckled, Jackson Pollock-like, in brown and black.) Certainly the island’s breeding colony must have been a large one to persist through more than two centuries of depredation. By the late seventeen hundreds, though, the birds’ numbers were in sharp decline. The feather trade had become so lucrative that teams of men were spending the entire summer on Funk, scalding and plucking. In 1785, George Cartwright, an English trader and explorer, observed of these teams: “The destruction which they have made is incredible.” If a stop were not soon put to their efforts, he predicted, the great auk would soon “be diminished to almost nothing.”

Whether the teams actually managed to kill off every last one of the island’s auks or whether the slaughter simply reduced the colony to the point that it became vulnerable to other forces is unclear. (Diminishing population density may have made survival less likely for the remaining individuals, a phenomenon that’s known as the Allee effect.) In any event, the date that’s usually given for the extirpation of the great auk from North America is 1800. Some thirty years later, while working on The Birds of America, John James Audubon traveled to Newfoundland in search of great auks to paint from life. He couldn’t find any, and for his illustration had to make do with a stuffed bird from Iceland that had been acquired by a dealer in London. In his description of the great auk, Audubon wrote that it was “rare and accidental on the banks of Newfoundland” and that it was “said to breed on a rock on that island,” a curious contradiction since no breeding bird can be said to be “accidental.”

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