Small Great Auk

Recently, in Cafe Society, there was a thread about the Ingalls family, from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. It was interesting, and inspired me to re-read the series. I’m now reading The Long Winter, and in it, near the beginining, there is a blizzard, and hidden in a haystack Pa finds a strange bird. It is described as looking nearly identical to the great auk in the animal book they have, but much smaller. It fits in Mary’s hand easily. It is described as being black, with a white chest, and having large webbed feet. After the storm is over, they let it go in the lake, and after swimming to get up speed it takes off flying. She says they never say another bird like it again, and they never found out what it was.

I’ve googled a bit, and I can’t find out either. Does anyone know what type of bird it was?

There is no way to know for sure. However, there are some smaller species of auklets that might fit the bill. They lived pretty far north so it could have been something like a crested auklet.

As you probably know, Great auks were flightless.
Perhaps the bird was a somewhat atypically colored Loon blown in from Wisconsin or Minnesota. The bill and coloring are similar to a great auk, and they are known for the type of take off swimming you describe.

Proceeding by exclusion:
Auks and auklets are seabird. They wouldn’t be found on a lake, much less in a haystack.
Loons are large birds and wouldn’t fit “easily in Mary’s hand”.

A Pie-billed Grebe would approach the description (which is somewhat imaginative).