The birds that just scream at home

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Viewpoint - Joe Kennedy

SHEARWATERS are the world’s most abun­dant bird species with mil­lions travers­ing the oceans to and from their breed­ing sites fol­low­ing the con­tours of the sea for thou­sands of miles.

Manx shearwaters (Puffi­nus puffi­nus), of which 300,000 pairs nest on Bri­tish and Ir­ish is­lands, have by now de­parted on their great win­ter mi­gra­tory jour­ney to Brazil.

The end of the month will have seen the last leave, head­ing south and west, black-winged and white-breasted, glid­ing and shear­ing over the sea. Ninety-per-cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion of hooked beak and tubed nos­tril birds have been nest­ing on is­lands off the Ir­ish, Welsh and Scot­tish coasts.

The Manx­men — though few pairs nest there — ar­rive in March to breed, deep in soft soil bur­rows in Kerry, Gal­way, Antrim and Down, Wex­ford and Dublin. Most are on Puf­fin Is­land, Skel­lig Michael and the Blas­kets — about 10,000 pairs — fish­ing by day and join­ing in a bed­lam of strange scream­ing and howl­ing as dark­ness falls and they creep into their bur­rows to care for their sole chick.

There is an Isle of Man folk tale of Vik­ing raiders 1,000 years ago pre­par­ing for an as­sault on Ire­land, flee­ing in ter­ror at those blood-cur­dling screams in the night which they be­lieved were from evil demons of the un­der­world!

More than 100 years ago, there were so many birds on the Isle of Man that there was a thriv­ing com­mer­cial trade with lo­cals who took the fat chicks which were salted in bar­rels for the London mar­ket. The chicks were easy to catch, plump (up to one pound in weight) and rich in fat. Half of this was oil and the bird was de­scribed as “the most de­li­cious morsel in the world” or, by those who dis­agreed, “the most de­tested”.

About 10,000 were taken an­nu­ally from the Calf of Man while on St Kilda, the Scot­tish isle, there was such a de­mand for eggs that the birds were al­most wiped out.

Manx shearwaters travel far to seek food and ringed birds have been traced to the Bay of Bis­cay where they feed on sar­dine shoals be­fore re­turn­ing to Skel­lig and other sites with full crops — a round trip of 1,200 miles. The birds live long lives. One, ringed on the Copeland Is­lands, Co Down, was found dead at 51 years. It must have trav­elled 10 times round the moon and back again! There have been tests to judge nav­i­ga­tion. A bird was taken to Bos­ton by air­craft, re­leased and 12 days later turned up at its bur­row in Wales. It had flown an aver­age of 244 miles a day.

As the Manx birds fly to South Amer­ica, their cousins, Sooty Shearwaters (P. griseus), re­turn from their breed­ing colonies in the South At­lantic and Pa­cific to spend win­ter here. Most will have trav­elled at least 10,000 miles but some birds make longer jour­neys from New Zealand and the Falk­lands to Ja­pan and North Amer­ica be­fore cross­ing the At­lantic.

There are es­ti­mated to be about 20 mil­lion ‘sooties’, mak­ing it the world’s most abun­dant species. Like the Manx birds, they also ut­ter weird screams in the night, de­scribed by one ob­server as “the most ghastly sound, like chok­ing cats”. These global trav­ellers save their pent-up frus­tra­tions un­til they ar­rive home. Just like some hu­mans!

MI­GRANT: Manx shearwaters

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