Great Auk - Distribution and Habitat

Distribution and Habitat

The Great Auk was found in the cold North Atlantic coastal waters along the coasts of Canada, the northeastern United States, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Great Britain, France, and northern Spain. The Great Auk left the North Atlantic waters for land only in order to breed, even roosting at sea when not breeding. The rookeries of the Great Auk were found from Baffin Bay down to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, across the far northern Atlantic, including Iceland, and in Norway and the British Isles in Europe. For their nesting colonies the Great Auks required rocky islands with sloping shorelines that provided access to the seashore. These were very limiting requirements and it is believed that the Great Auk never had more than 20 breeding colonies. Additionally, the nesting sites needed to be close to rich feeding areas and be far enough from the mainland to discourage visitation by humans and Polar Bears. Only six breeding colonies are known: Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, St. Kilda Island off Scotland, Grimsey Island and Eldey Island near Iceland, Funk Island near Newfoundland, and the Bird Rocks (Rochers-aux-Oiseaux) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Records suggest that this species may have bred on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the breeding range of the Great Auk was restricted to Funk Island, Grimsey Island, Eldey Island, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and St. Kilda Island. Funk Island was the largest known breeding colony.

The Great Auk migrated north and south away from the breeding colonies after the chicks fledged and tended to go southward during late fall and winter. It was common in the Grand Banks. Its bones have been found as far south as Florida, where it may have occurred during four isolated time periods: around 1000 BC, 1000 AD, the 15th century, and the 17th century. (It has been suggested, however, that some of the bones discovered in Florida may be the result of aboriginal trading.) The Great Auk typically did not go further south than Massachusetts Bay in the winter.

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