Glory be to the highest
Tim Dee praises a captivating new book about seabirds: their lives, loves and the urgent threats that are causing their decline
The Seabird’s Cry Adam Nicolson (William Collins, £16.99)
THERE are as many bird personalities as there are birds. We might see a species (a male razorbill encouraging its chick into the sea on a boulderstrewn beach), a flock (a loose, mirror-bright cloud of kittiwakes rounding a wave-fretted stack) or a colony (the dazzling iced-cake of breeding gannets at the Bass Rock), but not one of these superbly evolved marine creatures will behave or live identically as another. Our modern understanding of this, the individuality of these birds, is at the heart of Adam nicolson’s beautiful and engrossing book.
Investigating the variations within species and documenting bird personalities is all the rage in behavioural ecology. Auks, fulmars, gannets and kittiwakes, spending their summers breeding in cliff-cities and the rest of their year fetching a living from the great world ocean, are proving to be as singular as any living thing.
Written with verve and weathered with wonder, The Seabird’s Cry tells the story of fulmar 1568 from Orkney, puffin EJ09593 from Pembrokeshire, Casanova the kittiwake, Caroline the Manx shearwater and Mrs Gibson the wandering albatross.
Among these individuals are also cannibals (a herring gull) and child abusers (some kittiwakes), dysfunctional youths (boobies) and altruistic aunts (some guillemots). Some of these birds are going wrong and some are succeeding; evolution is relentless and as active as ever.
Mr nicolson has caught the moment, the truth for now. His book is dark in places, even as it casts light on its subjects. It is darkest of all when he gives accounts of the long era of human destruction of the seabirds’ world. From Torrey Canyon’s oil-wrecked auks 50 years ago to the guts of albatrosses stuffed with plastic today, our recent time on Earth has been bad for it and memorable as such.
There are seabirds in Homer and many ancient seafaring cultures lived as if nested with their feathered flying neighbours. Humanity has long known these birds as valuable and potent. Some were edible and their oils and feathers were heatgenerating; others were emblems of weather mastery, wilderness survival and soulful traffic. Science is now confirming some of these old wisdoms and extending what we know. Mostly, this is being done via miniature lightweight machines, GPS trackers and geolocators, which capture and transmit data from far away.
The Seabird’s Cry works species by species through the latest understanding, building into an excited dossier that retells what scientists have put into numbercrunching graphs and complex maps in various scholarly papers. Mr nicolson’s inspired translation from these unfriendly if fascinating texts is enhanced, chapter by chapter, by his own well-noticed and freshly told field sketches.
nothing in this book feels indoors. His shag is matchless. His wheels of flying puffins seen as an exquisite sensorium, his shearwaters that steer by smell, his gannets whose ‘roughened huzzahs’ sound like ‘a regiment of Cossacks’—all are wonderful to have. There is no one I’d rather read writing about these creatures.
This is especially striking as this book follows a series of titles that didn’t conjure the new one. His last was on Homer, the one before about the English gentry, earlier volumes tackled AngloArcadias, nelson and his sailors, south-east England and the makers of the King James Bible. True, a book on sailing and another on the Shiants, the family-owned seabird-rich islands, were more in keeping and, in fact, there is a uniting constant. We might call it big life—both an interest in those living or pursuing such a thing and the urge to make a written equivalent to it.
We might also call it personality—the bigness of our author’s excitements and passions is writ large in his every production. It is abundant in this clear-sighted yet loving book and it is magnificent to have. Tim Dee is the author of ‘The Running Sky’ and ‘Four Fields’
‘Mr Nicolson has caught the moment, the truth for now
A puffin (above) and two razorbills by artist Kate Boxer