The extinct great auk

great auks birds by Audobon
Great auks by Audobon
   Great auks, the first birds to be called penguins (from the Welsh word for "white head"), once nested by the tens of millions on rocky islands in the North Atlantic. But their stupendous numbers and the remoteness of their breeding grounds proved no defense.
   By about 1760, the North Ameri­can feather industry—which provided down and feathers for comforters and beds—had exhausted its sources through overhunting of ducks and destruction of nesting grounds along the Atlantic coast. Feather merchants then turned to the densely populated rookeries of the great auks for their supply. By 1810, only one rookery remained in the western Atlantic, a tiny, desolate rock known as funk Island. The barren island was named for the stench that rose from defeathering cauldrons heated by fires that were fueled, in the absence of firewood, by the oil-rich bodies of birds.
   Feather crews returned to Funk Island every spring until no birds remained. Great auks lasted a little longer in the vicinity of Iceland, but by the 1840s, these also had become extremely rare.
   Fearing that the species would die out before it had been studied, a well-intentioned Icelandic ornithologist applied the final blow. In June 1844, three fishermen, commissioned by the collector, stumbled across a breeding pair with a single egg. They pursued and killed the two adults with clubs and smashed the egg in the chase. The great auk was never seen again.