Great Auk from Birds of America (1827) by John James Audubon (1785 - 1851), etched by Robert Havell (1793 - 1878). Source:

We Called them Penguin

What the Extinction of the Great Auk Tell Us About How We Manage Species-At-Risk

Written by Zack Metcalfe

Canada’s eastern shore is much emptier than it used to be. Had you walked the coast of Nova Scotia in the 1800s, where a tumultuous ocean met stubborn granite, you might have seen a flightless bird watching you from the lip of a boulder. It stood about waist height, with a long and jagged bill, its back straight and wings folded neatly against black and white plumage.

This bird, which could navigate the shoreline and rough ocean effortlessly, went by many names; some called it spearbill, a reference to the dagger-like beak extending entire inches past its face. Others called it penguin, the first species ever to carry the name, before it was repurposed for the denizens of Antarctica. In the annals of natural history, it’s called the Great auk, once common on islands and oceanfronts across the North Atlantic, now a stark reminder of nature’s fragility.

The last breeding pair was killed by sailors on the Island of Eldey, off the coast of Iceland, in 1844, a legacy of excessive hunting arriving at its natural conclusion. 

Extinction, by definition, is permanent. And in the 1800s, there was no Species at Risk Act (SARA) which could have made the difference for these auks; no opportunity to recognize the lack of data on their health and distribution, putting contemporary naturalists to work.

Let’s pretend for a moment that such a framework existed then: after scouring the North Atlantic, conservationists would have discovered only one colony on the Icelandic Isle of Eldey and proclaimed the species extirpated from Canada, meaning gone from one region but not another. Iceland, then, exercising its own version of SARA, would have assembled experts to “assess” the status of the species. Was it of special concern (three steps from extinction), threatened (two steps from extinction), or endangered (one step from extinction)? Each designation would come with a battery of mandatory conservation initiatives and timelines, perhaps early enough to save the species and protect its only remaining habitat.

When a plant, animal or fungi is on the road to extinction, we call them species at risk, our attempt to quantify and categorize the hemorrhaging of our biosphere. This categorization takes place at many different levels, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which identifies the most at-risk species globally. Nationally, we have the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an exceptionally thorough scientific body which debates the finer points of, say, habitat availability for New Brunswick’s cobblestone tiger beetle, before making its recommendations to the Canadian federal government. The Species at Risk Act, overseen by Environment and Climate Change Canada as well as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, accepts or rejects COSEWIC’s designations after accounting for sociopolitical factors, a consistently controversial filter.

Shown above are Razorbills on New Brunswick’s Machias Seal Island. Photo by Zack Metcalfe
Great Auk Sidebar Image

Some provinces have their own species-at-risk legislation and the infrastructure to apply it, such as Nova Scotia. Others, like British Columbia, have no legislation at all, leaving imperilled species without recourse if federal law doesn’t apply. And then there are organizations and Indigenous groups who, more than once, have relied on experience and wisdom to recognize at-risk species and take localized action. Taking stock of species at every level is not wasted effort, since their survival locally has entirely different implications than their survival globally.

There is no single jury for species at risk, no arbiter to separate the science from the politics; only people, within government and without, trying to understand the crumbling of our biosphere, and to intervene where resources and passions permit. By last count, COSEWIC had identified 845 species at risk in Canada; the Species at Risk Act recognizes 676 of them. The only consistency, from province to province and nation to nation, is that the number of at-risk species always goes up. In Canada, since SARA was established in 2002, the number has never once gone down.

In the following pages you will read again the various terms we apply to species at risk, the organizations applying them, and about the skirmishes big and small being waged against extinction within our borders. The battle lines are being drawn daily, with ready pessimism and unapologetic optimism both. You are encouraged to embrace the latter.


Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.