4 facts that didn't make it into Jan Thornhill's book The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

In celebration of The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, we bring you four more little-known facts about the once thriving Atlantic bird.
The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk is a nonfiction picture book by Jan Thornhill. (TD Canadian Children's Literature Award)

Jan Thornhill's book, The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk, won the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books.

Thornhill recently spoke to CBC Books about the rigorous research that went into her fact-based picture book about the Atlantic bird's extinction in 1844. And while dozens of facts made the cut, dozens more were left on the chopping block.

Here are a few bonus facts about the extinct prowlers of the sea, from The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk's appendix.

1. Auks were so clumsy on land some believed they were blind

The great auk was out of its element when living inland. Some Icelanders saw them stumbling their way across the landscape and believed the creatures were blind. Writers and naturalists in possession of great auks saw many of them die a few months after their capture, far from their original habitat.

2. Captors fed great auks strange things

Many captors fed great auks food that was uncommon in its sea environment. For example, one great auk captured in 1834 was force-fed helpings of mashed potatoes until it developed a taste for them, as well as freshwater fish. The great auk ate potatoes until its death four months later.

This image of the now extinct great auk was painted by Heinrich Harder in 1916. (petermaas.nl)

3. Great auks were used as food, fish bait and even mattress stuffing

The auks of Newfoundland's Funk Island provided more than just a food source for hungry sailors. During the 17th century, humans used them as fish bait and prized their feathers for their quality as mattress stuffing.

4. There were fake great auks

Given the demand generated by collectors of stuffed great auks and their eggs, counterfeit models frequently infiltrated many collections. Because great auk eggs varied in size and counterfeiters were meticulously faithful with their designs, many people confused the copy for the genuine artefact. To match the original's plumage, stuffed replicas of the seabird blended feathers from other birds, such as the the thick-billed murre, loons and only a few feathers from actual great auks.

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