The Great Auk, a species of flightless bird extinct since 1844, has returned to Rathlin Island.
Ornithologists have been baffled by the birds return and hundreds of bird watchers and “twitchers” are expected to flock to the island to see this once in a lifetime bird or what twitchers call a “tick”.
Alas, it isn’t a case of some mad scientist recreating Great Auk using DNA from stuffed specimens rr from real great auk eggs found in the collections of some of the most prestigious museums in the world.
The answer is a simple one - the birds are in fact a model created after the pupils of St Mary’s Primary School on Rathlin Island decided to investigate this iconic birds historical links with the island.
They discovered that in 1740 the Reverend J Guage wrote a report about the birds found on Ratline and described the Great Auk as a large fowl “bigger than a goose” which he supposed to be a penguin. The bird would have been known to the islanders of that time.
The children and their teachers decided that they wanted to see these iconic birds back on their former island home. On the schools behalf, Rathlin Development Community Association (RDCA) applied for funding from the governments Carrier Bag Levy Challenge Fund (‘Plastic Bag Tax’) to see if they could help make this dream come true.
The children, guided by the staff of St Mary’s Primary School Rathlin Island, found out all they could about the birds. RDCA and the school pupils and teachers organised a visit to Trinity College Dublin Zoology museum to see the only surviving stuffed specimen in Ireland.
Dr Martyn J Linnie the curator of the museum made a presentation on the great Auk and other fascinating items in the museum’s collection. He then presented the highlight of the day by letting the children view the stuffed specimen of the last Great Auk ever to be found in Ireland.
The children also undertook a number of projects on the birds such as making their own models, writing poetry and researching how the birds survived fed, bred and so on.
They also had a story telling session in the school where a well known Island storyteller Jim McFaul told a story about the King of the Guillemots as the Great Auk was know. Even better was his Rathlin Island name for the legendary bird The King of the Foorins which is an old Rathlin Island name for the Guillemot a species of Auk still found on the island.
RDCA also commissioned a Northern Ireland based sculpture John Martin to make a superb life size full colour model of a pair of great Auks incubating their egg.
The whole project was documented by a Belfast based film maker Vincent Kinnaird (Notasuch Films Ltd) who filmed and documented the whole project from start to finish.
The Great Auks or the King and Queen of the Foorins have now made an emotional and triumphant homecoming to one of their former ancestral haunts on the beautiful island of Rathlin.
On the deck of the Rathlin ferry the MV Canna and lashed by sea spay the great Auks looked quite at home on the rolling and pitching deck as it made its way from Ballycastle to Church Bay on the island.
Transported to St Mary’s School the birds arrived to be greeted by the excited pupils who had worked so hard to make the return of this wonderful but sadly now extinct species happen.
Talking about the Great Auk project David Quinney-Mee of Rathlin Development Community Association said: “My thanks to Mark H Durkan, Minister of the Environment for making monies available through the Carrier Bag Challenge Fund Levy to carry out this work. What a fantastic project to be involved in.”
Meanwhile, Michael Cecil, chairman of RDCA, remarked: “When this idea was first put to me I knew it was a perfect fit for Rathlin. It’s not often that a project idea comes along that fires the imagination of so many people.
“It was so good to connect again with this part of our lost past. The Great Auk is once again part of our cultural heritage and is seared into the minds of our young people because of this project.”