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Standing about 75-85 cm tall and weighing around 5 kg, the flightless Great Auk was the largest of the auks. It had white lower- and glossy black upper feathers, with an area of white feathers on both sides of the head between the beak and each eye. The longest wing feathers were only 10 cm long. The eyes had a reddish-brown iris, and the beak was black with white transverse grooves. Its feet and claws were black while the webbed skin between the toes was brown/black. Juvenile birds had less prominent grooves in their beaks and had mottled white and black necks.
Great auks were found in rocky seashore areas as well as in adjacent open ocean.
Great auks were once found in the North Atlantic, between the Arctic Circle, New England, and the British Isles.
Great auks were unable to fly. They spent the winter primarily at sea. During the breeding season, great auks were found in huge colonies on a small number of islands. Females laid a single egg on bare rock. Eggs had unique markings which likely allowed parents to recognize their own egg.
Immatures probably fed on plankton while adults dived for fish. Great Auks were excellent swimmers, using their wings to swim underwater. Their main food was fish, usually 12-20 cm in length, but occasionally up to half the bird’s own length. Based on remains associated with Great Auk bones found on Funk Island and on ecological and morphological considerations, it seems that Atlantic menhaden and capelin were favored prey items
Pinguinus impennis occurred in naturally scattered colonies across the North Atlantic until the 19th century, breeding from Canada through Greenland (to Denmark), the Faeroe Islands (to Denmark) and Iceland to Ireland and the UK, with archeological records from the western coast of Europe from European Russia south to France, and wintering offshore south to New England, USA, and southern Spain. The last known pair were killed on Eldey Island, Iceland, in 1844, and the last live bird was seen off the Newfoundland Banks in 1852. [conservation status from birdlife.org]
Historically, birds bred only on remote, rocky islands, probably due to early extirpation in more accessible sites. The Great Auk laid only one egg each year, which it incubated on bare ground until hatching in June. The eggs averaged 12.4cm in length and were yellowish white to light ochre with a varying pattern of black, brown or greyish spots and lines which often congregated on the large end.[
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