Update: The Seabird’s Cry won the Jeffries Prize this week!
The subtitle to this stunning book is ‘The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers’, but it really ought to include ‘Deaths’, because I have never read such a moving account about the daily lives and deaths of birds. It’s the accompaniment (but not marketed as such) to Nicolson’s two-part TV series for BBC 4 (18 days to go on iPlayer), which I will be watching tonight, hoping that the murderous shags and the dysfunctional, cannibal gulls only have bit parts. Reading Nicolson’s account of watching a father razorbill, impelled by instinct to cheep at his chick, calling it out of the safety of its rock crevice to come to sea for the first time, with a massive dark-green shag standing by, waiting to grab its snack, was like an unforgettable horror film.
All through this book there is a tension between wanting to avoid hopeless anthropomorphising, and looking at birds from a purely scientific perspective. We love and marvel at birds, and they, on occasion, are comfortable allowing their lives to come into contact with ours. Sometimes they are savage with us (see what the stranded gannet did to the nice man who picked it up). Many times they can’t avoid us (see ‘Deaths’), either by being hunted, for food or for fun, or from the changes we make to the earth, sea, and air. Many seabirds navigate by smell, mapping the oceans by the distinctive fumes that come off krill and other microscopic food sources. The same chemical signature is attached to pieces of plastic that has been in the sea for a while, which is why seabirds die from eating plastic. They’re not stupid; it just smells like their food.
Nicolson leavens the science by focusing on the individual birds, and what we’ve learned from observing the behaviour of a few so that we can understand the species better. I read this book feeling alternately heartbroken (see ‘Deaths’) and wildly excited by the sheer volume of new research (new to me) about how birds work: how they develop, navigate, breed, rear chicks, husband their energy and catch their food, and how their mechanics have evolved. You’d think that an albatross with a 12-foot wingspan would be seriously overstressed holding these out for hours and days. Not so: it has a special muscle that hangs the wings from its skeleton, rather than supporting their vast weight unaided, and so it glides for hours and days in the wind with as little energy expended as when it is sleeping.
The book is a remarkable page-turning catalogue of wonderment, synthesising zoology and ornithology with history, poetry and geography, in eleven chapters. Here are some of the highlights.
- The 12,000 fat-filled and oil-stuffed fulmar chicks caught by the islanders of St Kilda every year until the beginning of the 20th century gave them about 600 gallons of oil to live off. The islanders paid part of their rent in fulmar feathers.
- When puffins go off to sea in August before returning to land to breed the following spring, each individual has its own route, crossing and recrossing the Atlantic to graze in their preferred feeding grounds. They created this route when they were first fledged, flying around the oceans to explore, and they use the same route each winter, year in, year out.
- Kittiwake chicks are born knowing that a sheer drop will kill them, because these birds have always nested on tiny ledges. Other chicks don’t know this.
- Herring gulls eat baby birds and little auks fresh from the nest.
- When a guillemot community is short of food, and the parent birds are both away hunting too long, guillemots will attack neighbouring chicks on their nests to conserve the food for their own offspring.
- Shag and cormorants hold their wings out to dry because they have sacrificed waterproofing and buoyancy so that they can dive faster.
- Shearwaters navigate across seas where they have never been, using the prevailing winds and the sun.
- Gannets are innately ferocious, and different colonies divide up fishing territories to prevent war.
- The great auk evolved into flightlessness to fill the ecological niche of a seal.
- Albatrosses eat 4.5 pounds of squid a day.
It’s amazing. Buy this book, but don’t hope for cuddliness.
Adam Nicolson, The Seabird’s Cry (2017 William Collins), ISBN 978-0-00-816570-3, £9.99