From Elveden to Iceland: Alfred’s quest for the last auk

Dr David Waterhouse.

Dr David Waterhouse Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

One hundred and sixty years ago, an East Anglian naturalist set out on a remarkable quest: to prove that one of the famous extinct birds in history was really alive after all. Trevor Heaton tells the story of Alfred Newton and the great auk.

Elveden Hall: the childhood home of Alfred Newton, on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Elveden Hall: the childhood home of Alfred Newton, on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk. - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

Poor, poor Pinguinnis impennis. In the sea the bird was a sleek swimmer, its flightless stubs of wings offering seal-flipper-like speed and manoeuvrability.

But on land? On land, alas, it was a very different story.

Professor Alfred Newton

Professor Alfred Newton - Credit: Archant

Its warm down and tasty flesh made it an irresistible temptation for any passing human. Its size made it impossible to miss, and by a cruel twist nature had made it black and white, so even easier to spot.

Even worse, it only laid one (huge) egg, and on the most precarious of rocky outcrops too. It was so easy for a freak wave, a predator – or a human interloper - to destroy it.

The Barclay Egg, one of the two geat auk eggs at Norwich Castle Museum. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Barclay Egg, one of the two geat auk eggs at Norwich Castle Museum. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

At sea, it was safe. But, fatefully and fatally, it had to come inshore to breed. Its range, which once extended to almost every shore around the north Atlantic (even around the coast of Florida and into the Mediterranean), shrank and shrank.

By the turn of the 19th century there were probably only a few hundred left. Collectors hurried to obtain a specimen or an egg before the inevitable happened.

The great auk, as portrayed by the bird artist Audubon in 1836.

The great auk, as portrayed by the bird artist Audubon in 1836. - Credit: Archant

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Then, in 1844, it did. What turned out to be the last breeding pair were killed on the storm-lashed island of Eldey, just off the south-west coast of Iceland. The egg the final pair had been nurturing was smashed. And so the great auk joined the dodo on the list of famous extinct birds, becoming just one more sad footnote in history.

But one East Anglian naturalist begged to differ. Alfred Newton, brought up at Elveden Hall on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk, refused to accept that this iconic bird had been swept from the planet.

Born in 1829, he was just eight days from his 15th birthday when the last great auk pair breathed their last. The fifth son among six boys and four girls, his well-to-do family had moved to Elveden from their sugar plantations in the West Indies. Alfred's father William was MP for Ipswich (and a Norfolk JP) while his mother Elizabeth was also well-connected, being the daughter of the MP for York.

Sadly, Alfred's childhood at Elveden was to be blighted by a fall from a table in the hall's library, which left him lame and in permanent need of a stick. His passion for nature was shared by his younger brother Edward, who later joined Alfred as co-founder of the British Ornithologists Union in 1858.

When Alfred was 19, he entered Magdalene College in Cambridge, graduating in 1853. Crucially for his burgeoning passion in ornithology, he won a travelling fellowship which gave him the freedom to tour the world for 10 years, studying nature.

In 1855 he voyaged with his friend John Wolley to northern Scandinavia, and later went to the West Indies, North America and Madeira. And it was clear that the vanished had as much appeal to the young ornithologist as the living. Edward, later Colonial Secretary of Mauritius, was able to present his brother with some bones of the long-extinct dodo which once lived on the island.

The dodo had last been seen as far back as 1662. But the great auk? Well, thought Alfred, there could well be a different story….

He and John decided to travel to the islands off the south-west tip of Iceland to discover if – somehow – a few specimens still survived. The inaccessible Geirfuglasker island had been the last breeding stronghold of the great auk. But in 1830 a volcanic eruption left the island submerged, forcing the remnants of the colony - some 50 birds – to move to the nearby island of Eldey instead. Fatefully, one side of the island could be reached by boats. It was this which sealed the species' fate.

In spring 1858, Alfred, now 28, set out with his friend and fellow zoologist. They waited for two months on the inhospitable Icelandic coast hoping to make a landing. Frustratingly, the weather remained poor and their chance never came. They did find a few great auk bones, though. The expedition had a sad sequel, as Wolley died the following year aged just 36.

But even though it is long extinct, you can still see a great auk – and in East Anglia too. Dr David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History and Acting Curator of Geology, Norfolk Museums Service, looks after some remarkable great auk items – two eggs and a taxidermy specimen (one of just 81 in the world), even some replica pottery eggs. ('We thought we'd discovered another taxidermy specimen in a Norfolk attic a few years ago but it was a really bad one made up of bits and pieces of other birds!')

The two eggs – known as the Reeves Egg and the Barclays Egg – represent about three per cent of all the known great auk eggs worldwide, and as such are of immense importance to researchers.

The Reeves Egg and the taxidermy specimen are on permanent display in the castle's Natural History gallery (both are enclosed in a fireproof safe for extra protection). The Reeves Egg is named after a former curator who, in an incredible act of generosity, donated it on his retirement.

But very few people get to see the Barclay Egg, which was donated by Evelyn Barclay in 1936. I was lucky enough to get a close-up view. It is a beautiful - and poignant - sight.

Encased in a long glass-fronted box, this egg, around 12.5cm long (about the same size as an emu's egg), is now cosseted in lamb's wool, in sharp contrast to the time it was laid almost 200 years ago on a precarious rock ledge.

A light ochre, it is flecked with random splodges of chocolate colour. It looks like an artistic creation, but it is all natural – and beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that the publisher Dorling Kindersley photographed it (and other Norwich Castle eggs) for its books.

Seabird expert Professor Tim Birkhead, of Sheffield University, has been revealing some of the hidden secrets of the great auks' egg – and 'putting to bed' one abiding myth. The idea that the egg was pointed to stop it rolling off the ledge has now been discredited, says Dr Waterhouse. 'Tim has shown that its 'turning circle' would actually have been bigger than the usual size of the ledges they were laid on.'

The theory now is that the roughly-triangular shape of the egg would have given it much-needed strength. Even its splodges of colour – a pattern unique to the individual female which produced it – may be tied in with proteins which added strength.

It is discoveries such as this that make the Norwich eggs, in David's words, 'scientifically priceless'.

As for the taxidermy specimen, 'It's surprising how many people think it's a dodo. We've never had one of those – the mind plays tricks.' David has created his own sculpture of this iconic bird so that visually-impaired visitors can share in the experience via touch.

A 2016 report from the American research institute Revive & Restore even claimed that the great auk could be re-created by using its DNA to fertilise embryos from its relative the razorbill, and which would then be implanted in a large bird, such as a goose. Well, we'll see. David agrees it may be certainly possible at some stage in the future… perhaps.

So much for the science. Now for the emotion. For there is no doubt that the story of the great auk strikes a chord through the ages. Why should that be so? David has a theory: 'All the other extinct birds we hear about tended to be far-flung and exotic – they are quite distant geographically. But the great auk was on our doorstep – it's like a northern hemisphere dodo.'

It's too easy to blame the demands of collectors and museums for its ultimate demise, but the species was probably doomed long before then. 'You get below a certain number of breeding individuals and they were never going to meet each other. You are almost literally putting all your eggs in one basket. 'A lot of the time museums and collectors get the blame for something that is a lot more complicated – but I'm not defending the people who collected the last few eggs [of the great auk].

'We know so much more now about the ecology of the birds. For example, we also attributed the demise of the dodo to some passing sailors knocking it on the head, but we know we need to be looking at the ecosystem – such as the introduction of pigs to the island [of Mauritius]. The lesson these birds give us for the future is that the whole ecosystem of the sea needs to be looked after.'

You have to wonder what Newton and Wolley would they have done had they found a colony. You would like to think that they would have agitated for protection rather than be swept along by that communal Victorian collecting madness which prized a dead specimen in a museum above a live bird on a distant ocean rock.

The friends' quest was not entirely fruitless. As well as those bones, Alfred was able to talk to local fishermen who had seen living birds. In 1861 he wrote: '[The auks] were easily frightened by noise, but not by what they saw. They sometimes uttered a few low croaks. They have never been known to defend their eggs, but would bite fiercely if they had the chance when caught.'

And did you notice the past tense? It seems by now even Alfred had given up all hope of ever seeing a live bird.

He remained fascinated through his life by it. His papers, bequeathed to the University of Cambridge on his death in 1907, lists 203 separate items relating to the species, including papers from his great friend Wolley.

There is one, final, twist. For it turns out the 1844 Eldey great auks really weren't the last after all.

It is now accepted that the last great auk to be seen alive by human eyes was in 1852 when Colonel H M Drummond-Hay – coincidentally, one of Alfred's friends - saw a single specimen bobbing past his steamer as he headed back to Europe from America.

And with that, the poor, clumsy, unlucky, ugly, beautiful, magnificent great auk passed from mankind's view for ever.