Even before the eighteenth century, the great auk was not doing especially well. The large flightless seabird (the only one in the North Atlantic) had been hunted on a significant scale since atleast the eighth century and had been taken as opportunistic meals by people well before the stone age. Like the dodo, grounded and unused to humans, the birds were easy prey. One sailing ship reported that they were able to use planks to simply herd hundreds of birds on board and into waiting stomachs. The scale of this hunting was so large that by 1600 no nesting colonies remained in mainland Europe. Instead hunters had to travel to Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland to find prey.
By the eighteenth century, there was widespread acknowledgement of the auk’s decline. Fewer and fewer were being found and many traditional nesting sites now sat abandoned. Many countries and communities started passing protection laws, but these laws were piecemeal at best. For instance, in 1794 Great Britain banned the hunting of auks for feathers, but still allowed game hunting. Some of the public called for stronger protections. However, others did not see the extinction as a tragedy.
“It is evident in the ‘battle of life’, such a bird as the Great Auk had but a poor chance. In a word, where competition for available provisions is so keen, where the ‘struggle for existence’ is so terrible, where only the ‘fittest’ survive, such a simpleton as the Great Auk must ere long be gobbled up. When the fat ‘innocent at hom’ actually walked into the mouths of its foes — great gawk that it was — its doom must be annihilation sooner or later. Such proved to be the case.” – Reverend Moses Harvey, Newfoundland, 1874
However, no matter what the public opinion, numbers continued to shrink throughout the nineteenth century. As the birds became harder to find other fowl were substituted, decreasing the demand for meat and feathers. Ironically, the increasing rarity of the birds jacked up the demand and number killed for museum specimens. Instead of hunting for sport, the endangered birds were now taken to satisfy collectors.
By the 1820’s the only known auk colony was found on the island of Geirfuglasker, off the coast of Iceland. Sheer cliffs prevented humans from reaching the auk nests. However, in 1830, the island actually sank into the ocean, forcing the birds onto the more accessible Eldey Island. Museum collectors swarmed the island and, on July 3rd, 1844 three men, Jón Brandsson, Sigurður Ísleifsson, and Ketill Ketilsson found the last breeding pair ever seen by humans. Brandsson and Ísleifsson captured and killed the adults while Ketilsson smashed the nest with his boots. The bodies were sold to a Danish natural history buff named Carl Siemsen.