Birds - Razor-billed Auk
( Originally Published 1904 )
Called also :. TINKER
Male and Female—In summer Upper parts sooty black; browner on fore neck. A conspicuous white line from eye to bill; breast, narrow line on wing, wing-linings, and underneath, white. Bill, which is about as long as head, and black, has horny shield on tip and is crossed by sunken white band. Tail upturned. In winter : Similar to summer plumage, except that it is duller and the sides and front of neck are white. Bill lacks horny shield. White line on bill, sometimes lacking on winter birds and always on immature specimens.
Range-"Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic; south in win-ter on the North American coast, casually to North Carolina. Breeding from Eastern Maine northward." A. 0. U.
Audubon, who followed these birds to their nesting haunts in Labrador and the Bay of Fundy, found the bodies of thousands strewn on the shores, where, after their eggs had been taken by boat loads for food, and the fine, warm feathers of their breasts had been torn off for clothing, they were left to decay. In Nova Scotia he met three men who made a business of egg-hunting. They began operations by trampling on all the eggs they found laid, relying on the well-known habit of the auk and its relatives that lay but a single egg, to replace it should it be destroyed. Thus they made sure of fresh eggs only. In the course of six weeks they had collected thirty thousand dozen, worth about two thousand dollars. As this wholesale destruction of our gregarious marine birds has been going on for a century at least, is it not surprising that they are not all extinct, like the great auk?
Without wings to help them escape from the voyagers and fishermen who pursued them on sea and ashore, the great auks, that in Nuttall's day were still breeding in enormous colonies in Greenland, dwindled to a single specimen "found dead in the vicinity of St. Augustine, Labrador, in November, 187o," which, although in poor condition, was sold for two hundred dollars to a European buyer. The Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Academy, Cambridge Museum, and Vassar College own one specimen each, the only ones in this country, so far as known.
The moral from the story of the great auk that the razor-billed species and its short-winged relatives should take to heart, obviously, is to keep their wings from degenerating into useless appendages, by constant exercise. They certainly are strong flyers in their present evolutionary stage, and, by constantly flap-ping their stiffened wings just above the level of the sea, are usually able to escape pursuit, if not in the air then by diving through the crest of a wave and still using their wings as a fish would its fins, to assist their flight under water. Though they move awkwardly on land, so awkwardly as to suggest the possible derivation of the adverb from their name, they still move rapidly enough to escape with their life in a fair race. When cornered, the hand that attempts to seize them receives a bite that sometimes takes the flesh from the bone—such a bite as the sea parrot gives.
In the nesting grounds, where enormous numbers of these razor-billed auks have congregated from times unknown, the females may be seen crouching along the eggs, not across them, in long, seriate ranks, where tier after tier of cliffs rise from the water's edge to several hundred feet above the sea. Where there is no attempt at a nest, and each huffy and brown speckled egg looks just like the thousands of others lying loosely about in the rocky crevices, it is amazing how each bird can tell its own. The male birds are kept busy during incubation bringing small fish in their bills to their sitting mates or relieving them on the eggs while the females go a-fishing. For a short time only the young birds are fed by regurgitation; then small fish are laid before them for them to help themselves, and presently they go tumbling off the jutting rocks into the sea to dive and hunt in-dependently. Particularly at the nesting season these razor-bills utter a peculiar grunt or groan ; but the stragglers from the great flocks that reach our coast in winter are almost silent.