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

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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