While preparing a talk  last week about the early history of ornithology in North America, I wondered who might have been the first to describe and identify a bird on this continent. As far as I can tell, that was Jacques Cartier when he wrote, in 1534, about the ‘Apponat‘ (originally in French but here in English translation ):
whose numbers are so great as to be incredible, unless one has seen them; for although the island is about a league in circumference, it is so exceedingly full of birds that one would think they had been stowed there … Some of these birds are as large as geese, being black and white with a beak like a crow‘s. They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings about the size of half one‘s hand, with which however they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat that it is marvellous. We call them apponats; and our two longboats were laden with them as with stones in less than half an hour. Of these, each of our ships salted four or five casks, not counting those we were able to eat fresh
Cartier also recorded seeing Margaulx (Gannets) and Godertz (probably Common Murres) but the apponat referred to here is the Great Auk (Puinguinis impennis). “Apponath” was what the local Newfoundland natives (i.e. Beothuks) called this bird. On his second trip to Isle des Oyseaux, a year later, Cartier wrote “The island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without perceiving that any of them had been removed” .
The “isle of birds” (Isle des Oyseaux) referred to in that passage above, was called ‘Penguin Island’ in the 1600s and was ‘officially’ called ‘Funk Island’ by the late 1700s. Cartier was not the first to visit this island, as Gaspar Corte-Real stopped there in 1501, and it is shown on two maps by Pedro Reinel—one in 1504 where he calls it ‘Y Dos Saues’ and the other in 1520 where it is labelled ‘Yihas das Aves’. The map below by John Mason was made around 1617 and clearly shows ‘Penguin Island’ off the northwest coast on Newfoundland. This map was drawn upside down (for some unknown reason), so Penguin Island is on the lower left margin.
There is some debate about where the word ‘penguin’ came from, though we can be certain that it was what Europeans called the Great Auk, centuries before any of the birds that we now call penguins had been ‘discovered’. The three most commonly suggested—but very different—origins for the word ‘penguin’, as applied to the Great Auk, are:
- derived from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn‘, where ‘pen’ is their word for head (or headland) and ‘gwyn’ means white, referring either to the white patch on the bird’s head, or the fact that a headland full of Great Auks looks white. The Welsh (and other Europeans) would have known this bird long before they found it in North America, as it bred (and was slaughtered) across the eastern North Atlantic from Iceland thorough Great Britain and Norway to as far south as Spain. In 1577, Francis Fletcher, a clergyman who travelled with Sir Francis Drake, wrote in his log about the southern hemisphere penguins : “Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.” This seems to me fairly convincing evidence for the word’s origin.
- derived from the name ‘pin-winged’, referring to the lack of real wing feathers on this flightless bird. I like this explanation though the consensus seems to be that it is incorrect.
- derived from the Latin pinguis, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘plump’
Probably the first European to see what we now call penguins was the explorer Bartholomeu Diaz, from Portugal, who reached the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) in 1488, but he never mentioned these birds in his notes. The first mention of southern hemisphere penguins is probably in the travel book of Álvaro Velho who rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Vasco da Gama in 1497. He called them ‘otilicarios’ [opticians?] and said that (again in rough translation): “They are as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings. These birds, of which we slaughtered as many as we could, cried like jackass.”
So the Great Auk was the first ‘penguin’. Presumably it seemed logical at the time to call the southern hemisphere flightless oceanic birds ‘penguins‘, as well, because they looked and behaved so much like the Great Auk. Hunted relentlessly, the Great Auk had disappeared from Funk Island by 1800—where the ‘funk’ but not the bird remains to this day. The last individual was killed in Iceland in 1844, leaving its current genus name Puinguinis as the final remnant of its life as the first penguin.
- Cook R (1993) The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Gaskell J (2001) Who Killed the Great Auk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grieve S (1885) The great auk, or garefowl (Alca impennis, Linn.): Its history, archaeology, and remains. London: TC Jack. [available here]
- Thier K (2007) Of Picts and penguins—Celtic languages in the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. pp 246-259 in Tristram HLC (ed.) The Celtic Languages in Contact. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press
- On Sat 19 Oct 2017, I gave a talk called ‘Discovering Birds in the Great White North‘ as part of a Bird Festival at the lovely Ruthven Park National Historic Site in the Niagara Region of Ontario. That talk drew material from a chapter I wrote on the History of Ornithology in Nunavut for a forthcoming book on the birds of Nunavut.
- This quote is from Cook 1993:xvii
- This quote is from Thier 2007:255