Great Auk, plate CCCXLI

Collection Spotlight

Great Auk, plate CCCXLI

The great auk is one of several now-extinct species recorded for history in John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Sightings of this bird were already extremely rare during the time of Audubon’s expeditions in North America. Because he could not find a live example of the bird on which to base his painting, Audubon worked from a stuffed specimen he obtained in London and from descriptions provided by several fishermen who had observed the bird in the wild. Audubon also drew on a first-hand account from Henry Havell, the brother of his engraver. Havell had managed to capture – and release – a great auk on the banks of Newfoundland.

Great auks measured 75 to 85 cm tall and weighed about 5 kg. These flightless birds had a grooved black bill, black and white plumage, an elongated body, large webbed feet, and small fin-like wings similar to penguins. Nesting in large colonies along the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean, these birds laid one large egg (11–14 cm by 7–8.4 cm) per year. Both parents incubated the egg on bare rock. The great auk’s nesting behaviour was likely similar to that of the razorbill, its closest living relative. 

The demise of the species is well documented. Great auks were overhunted mostly for their down feathers, and then as collectibles when they became increasingly rare. All but one of North America’s once-large colonies had collapsed by the late 1600s. The remaining colony, on Funk Island off the coast of what is now Newfoundland and Labrador, was likely gone by 1800. The last known pair of great auks was killed in Iceland in 1844.


  • This is Plate CCCXLI (341). The caption reads: Great Auk, Alca impennis, L.
  • The plate measures 65 cm high and 97.9 cm wide.
  • It was engraved, printed and coloured by Robert Havell in 1836.
  • The plate is part of set number 69.
  • Audubon painted a pair of adult great auks in their preferred nesting habitat: an isolated island of bare rock. The plate showcases other defining characteristics of the species, such as its agility in the water and its upright stance on land.
Great Auk, plate CCCXLI
Great Auk, plate CCCXLI