Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Auk, any bird of the genus Alca, the type of the family Alcidae, which is confined to the north temperate and arctic regions, and contains the true Auks, the Puffins, and the Guillemots. In the birds of this family the wings are short and pointed, and the feet, which are three-toed and entirely webbed, are set very far back, which renders walking difficult, and gives the birds an ungainly appearance on land. In the water they are exceedingly active, swimming and diving with great rapidity for their food, which consists of fishes and other marine animals. The true Auks constitute the genus Alca, which consists of two species, A. torda, the Razorbill (q.v.), and A. impennis, the extinct Great Auk.

This bird was the largest of the family; it was about 32 inches in length, and stoutly built, the wings were perfectly formed, but so small as to be useless for flight. Its summer plumage was brownish-black above and white beneath, with a large white spot before the eye; in winter there was more white on the head and face. These birds inhabited the temperate region of the North Atlantic, ranging as far south as Massachusetts in the west. They were known to sailors in the seventeenth century as "pinwings" (whence the modern word "penguin"), and were taken in considerable numbers for food. It was the custom to salt them down for future consumption, and the early cod-fishers on the banks of Newfoundland had no inconsiderable share in the extinction of this species. The last specimen known to have occurred in the United Kingdom was shot at Waterford in 1834, and the last individual recorded was taken in Iceland ten years later, and is now in the Royal Museum, Copenhagen. There is a specimen in the British Museum of Natural History, South Kensington. The Great Auk, like most of the family, laid only one egg each year. This was about five inches long, and three inches round at the largest part, and was deposited on the bare rock, The eggs are extremely scarce, and fetch a very high price; in 1887 one was sold by auction for £160. Mergulus alle, the Rotche (q.v.), was formerly placed in the genus Alca, and is generally called the Little Auk. In America the term Auk, qualified by an epithet, is often applied to other members of the family, as the Crested Auk (Simorhynchus cristatellus), etc.