The Great Auk

By Errol Fuller


Harry N. Abrams, New York, NY, 1999, 448 pp., hardcover, $75.00.


Reviewed by Dr. Karl P. N. Shuker.

Any book that becomes the definitive work on its subject embodies an exceptionally high standard of scholarship in every way -- with authoritative, comprehensively researched and elegantly presented text, a peerless lavish showcase of illustrations if so required by the subject matter, an exhaustive bibliography, and also an indefinable yet readily tangible sense of its own unrivalled standing within the literature of its subject that is instantly apparent to anyone reading it or even casually perusing its contents. Errol Fuller's latest work, The Great Auk, possesses all of these precious qualities, and more.

Quite simply, it is a masterpiece. Published by Fuller himself to ensure full editing and marketing control of what is unquestionably his finest work to date, and indeed, quite probably his magnum opus, this magnificent tome is without doubt the most extensive book that has ever been -- and possibly ever could be -- written on the subject of Alca impennis, the great auk or garefowl.

A veritable encyclopedia rather than a mere monograph devoted to one of the world's most famous extinct birds, it surveys in meticulous but never tiresome detail every aspect of this fascinating species' history, prehistory, geographical distribution, lifestyle, and the tragic manner of its passing -- hunted into extinction by a myopic humanity ultimately more anxious to secure dead specimens for museums than to preserve living specimens for the world. Moreover, the history, present location, and photographic record of every single one of those lifeless, glass-eyed museum specimens are also fully documented, as are the surviving preserved specimens of this species' eggs.

And throughout the book, adorning virtually every spread in this hefty 448-page volume, are full-color great auk paintings, black-and-white great auk photos, great auk sketches, engravings, cartoons -- a dazzling, spectacular panorama of great auk portrayals of every kind to entrance the eye with their sumptuous beauty and rich diversity.

For cryptozoologists, however, one section of this book is especially interesting. Chapter 15 is entitled "Late Records, Anomalous Sightings and Cryptozoology," and presents a selection of intriguing and tantalizing bygone reports that sought to claim the survival of great auks beyond this species' official extinction date of 1844. Some of these proved to be blatant hoaxes, simple misidentifications, or, in the most recent case, an advertising stunt (complete with life-sized mechanical garefowl) to promote a certain brand of whiskey! However, there are certain other cases, such as the Arran auk, that even today cannot be discounted so readily, yet which have previously rated little attention either in mainstream or in cryptozoological works.

I could continue to praise and describe this wonderful book indefinitely, but to do so would spoil the countless delights awaiting those fortunate enough to have recently purchased or received a copy and are now about to read it for themselves. If, however, you are not one of those lucky persons, then I heartily recommend that you remedy this sad situation without delay, by purchasing The Great Auk and discovering for yourself that the golden age in which truly great, definitive wildlife books were published has not yet passed us by.