October 18, 2016

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

by Jan Thornhill
Groundwood Books
44 pp.
Ages 8-11
October 2016

The story of the Great Auk, a bird of unique anatomy and behaviour, is truly a tragic one, and Jan Thornhill takes great care to ensure the details of that tragedy are thorough, though never explicit, and the basis for some ecological contemplation.

The Great Auk, which inhabited areas of the North Atlantic including Iceland, Greenland, Scandinavia and Newfoundland, was a part of the history of Stone Age humans, the Vikings, the Inuit and the Beothuk, and then that of the Europeans who arrived on North American shores.  The bird was a magnificent bird in size and structure, a lethal fisher spending 10 months of the year in the water.  But, its downfall–or at least a couple factors contributing to it–was advanced by the bird’s inability to fly and its clumsiness on the land upon which their eggs were laid.  Though they laid their eggs in highly-inaccessible areas in order to afford them some protection, humans found ways to reach them and exploit them.

Though the various cultures came to kill the birds for meat, some respectfully ensured that the rest of the animal was not wasted, instead used for clothing, oil, tools, and weapons.  But once the Europeans arrived in North America, the slaughter of the Great Auk went beyond just meeting their needs to survive.  The disappearance of the Great Auk from Funk Island, off the coast of Newfoundland, may have been the canary in the mine shaft but it just encouraged the continued exploration for and exploitation of Great Auks and their eggs for museum and private collections.

From The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk
by Jan Thornhill

Yet in this historical and natural history story, Jan Thornhill who excels at comprehensive but accessible non-fiction for middle-grade readers (e.g., I Found a Dead Bird, Maple Tree Press, 2006; This is My Planet: The Kids’ Guide to Global Warming, Maple Tree Press, 2007; Who Wants Pizza?: The kids’ guide to the history, science and culture of food, Maple Tree Press, 2010) the story of the Great Auk is told with insight and hindsight.  The bird’s own nature limited its ability to adapt and escape humans as predators but the role of humans in the Great Auk’s extinction is sadly obvious.  Still Jan Thornhill, whose illustrations of the bird in various natural situations and a few unnatural ones depict the Great Auk’s former glory and reality, makes a point to note the bird’s extinction in allowing other species, such as the Puffin, to flourish where it once could not.  Sometimes, though not always, there is a silvery lining to a story of extinction.

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk will be a useful text for talking history, birds, ecology, human interference and so much more–the addenda are very informative–and for opening discussions to help young people address their own role in the natural world and ensuring that world's endurance without our manipulation of it into a sorry state of irreversible destruction.

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