Great Auk
Pinguinus impennis
Life Span
20-25 years
kg lbs 
cm inch 

The great auk (Pinguinus impennis ) is a species of flightless alcid that became extinct in the mid-19th century. It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus. It is not closely related to the birds now known as penguins, which were discovered later by Europeans and so named by sailors because of their physical resemblance to the great auk.

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It bred on rocky, remote islands with easy access to the ocean and a plentiful food supply, a rarity in nature that provided only a few breeding sites for the great auks. When not breeding, they spent their time foraging in the waters of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as northern Spain and along the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain.

The great auk was 75 to 85 centimetres (30 to 33 inches) tall and weighed about 5 kilograms (11 pounds), making it the largest alcid to survive into the modern era, and the second-largest member of the alcid family overall (the prehistoric Miomancalla was larger). It had a black back and a white belly. The black beak was heavy and hooked, with grooves on its surface. During summer, great auk plumage showed a white patch over each eye. During winter, the great auk lost these patches, instead developing a white band stretching between the eyes. The wings were only 15 cm (6 in) long, rendering the bird flightless. Instead, the great auk was a powerful swimmer, a trait that it used in hunting. Its favourite prey were fish, including Atlantic menhaden and capelin, and crustaceans. Although agile in the water, it was clumsy on land. Great auk pairs mated for life. They nested in extremely dense and social colonies, laying one egg on bare rock. The egg was white with variable brown marbling. Both parents participated in the incubation of the egg for around 6 weeks before the young hatched. The young left the nest site after 2–3 weeks, although the parents continued to care for it.

The great auk was an important part of many Native American cultures, both as a food source and as a symbolic item. Many Maritime Archaic people were buried with great auk bones. One burial discovered included someone covered by more than 200 great auk beaks, which are presumed to be the remnants of a cloak made of great auks' skins. Early European explorers to the Americas used the great auk as a convenient food source or as fishing bait, reducing its numbers. The bird's down was in high demand in Europe, a factor that largely eliminated the European populations by the mid-16th century. Scientists soon began to realize that the great auk was disappearing and it became the beneficiary of many early environmental laws, but this proved ineffectual.

Its growing rarity increased interest from European museums and private collectors in obtaining skins and eggs of the bird. On 3 June 1844, the last two confirmed specimens were killed on Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, ending the last known breeding attempt. Later reports of roaming individuals being seen or caught are unconfirmed. A record of one great auk in 1852 is considered by some to be the last sighting of a member of the species. The great auk is mentioned in several novels, and the scientific journal of the American Ornithological Society was named The Auk (now Ornithology ) in honour of the bird until 2021.

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Pelagic birds


Flightless bird










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Recently Extinct


The Great auk or garefowl was a flightless seabird and has been extinct since 1844. Similar in appearance to smaller relatives in the Alcidae family, they were excellent swimmers and could evade capture by people hunting them in boats. Utterly defenseless, they were killed for food and bait by hunters, especially during the early 1800s. Huge numbers of them were caught, and the last known individuals were killed at Eldey Island, Iceland in June 1844. About 80 specimens and about the same number of their eggs have been preserved in museums. Razor-billed auks or razorbills are their closest living relatives.



The Great auk used to live in the North Atlantic from Canada, Iceland and Greenland to Scandinavia, the British Isles, France and northern Spain. After breeding, it migrated from the colonies, reaching southern regions in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in late fall and winter. Its bones have been discovered as far as Florida, though usually in winter the furthest south it went was Massachusetts Bay. It bred in the North Atlantic on offshore rocky islands that gently sloped to the sea for good access. It foraged in cold waters in the open ocean.

Great Auk habitat map

Climate zones

Great Auk habitat map
Great Auk
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Habits and Lifestyle

It is thought that Great auks mostly spent their time at sea. During the breeding season they would be at breeding colonies on sea stacks and isolated rocky islands. Being social birds, they foraged in small groups. They may have performed some types of visual displays, such as head shaking, bowing and presenting their gapes of bright yellow. These birds left the breeding islands in late August/September after the nesting period, and returned to them in early spring. Great auks were flightless, but were very good swimmers and divers. On land they were clumsy when walking in an upright posture, due to their legs being placed so far back on their body. Great auks made low croaks and hoarse screams, their voice generally being louder and deeper than the razorbill’s. In addition, they used visual displays for communication.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Great auks were highly specialized piscivores, usually eating fish that were 140/190 mm long, and favoring a high fat content. The young may have eaten smaller fish or zooplankton.

Mating Habits

39-44 days
2-3 weeks
1 egg

Great auks were monogamous, usually forming long-term pair bonds. Visual displays of head shaking and bowing during courtship were thought to show off the black-and-white pattern on their heads and their bright yellow gape. Their breeding season was from May to June or August. They bred in colonies on remote rocky islands, tightly packed with pairs close together. A single elongated egg was laid directly on bare ground. Both parents incubated the egg for 39-44 days, taking turns. Chicks hatched in June and later. The gray downy chick was fed by both its parents, leaving the nest site at just 2-3 weeks of age, to reach the sea in the middle of July, still dependent on its parents for food. This species reached maturity when it was 4-7 years old.


Population number

The Great auk is classified as Extinct (EX) on the IUCN Red List. Excessive hunting by humans was the main reason for its extinction, although it is possible that range and population were declining as a result of weather conditions and environment changes, with a reduction in the availability of food and suitable islands for nesting. Once their population was reduced by hunting to a dangerously low level, these birds were sought by collectors, including museums, and this final demand drove them into extinction.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • The Great auk, although not a penguin, is often called the "penguin of the north". This species was the only auk that was flightless.
  • Great auks belonged to the Alcid family of short-legged, web-footed birds that have short wings, other members being murres and puffins.
  • Like most Nordic animals, Great auks had a thick fat layer which helped protect them from the severely cold conditions where it lived.
  • Native Americans found Great auks valuable for food and clothing.
  • "Penguin" was Celtic for "great auk", which has the meaning "white head". When sailors first saw penguins, they looked like Great auks to them.
  • In the water these birds were as swift and hydrodynamic as torpedoes, being able to hold their breath for as long as fifteen minutes, enabling them to dive to a couple of hundred feet when searching for prey.

Coloring Pages


1. Great Auk Wikipedia article -
2. Great Auk on The IUCN Red List site -

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