At home on sea, land, and in air, seabirds demonstrate grace, power, and amazing ingenuity.
Naturalist, essayist, and historian Nicolson (Why Homer Matters, 2014, etc.) offers intimate, engrossing portraits of 10 seabirds, based on abundant scientific research as well as firsthand observation in the birds’ natural habitats: the Shiants islands in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, the Faeroes, Iceland, Norway, the coasts of Maine and Ireland, the Falklands, South Georgia, the Canaries, and the Azores. Winner of the Somerset Maugham Award and Ondaatje Prize, among other accolades, the author conveys with grace and precision the birds’ “life-habits and body-shapes, their various forms of adaptation, their ways of conquest and triumph.” Seabirds are ancient: fossil evidence dates some nesting sites at 44,000 years old. “The great cave paintings of the paleolithic are not as old” as a snow petrel’s fossilized stomach oil; penguins “were doing what they do now well before humankind was in Europe or the Americas.” Their survival strategies are astonishing. To feed their chicks, for example, puffins fly hundreds of miles to capture high-energy oily fish, each diving between 600 and 1,150 times daily to provide 8 to 10 feeds. A herring gull, noticing that humans were tossing bread to ducks in a pond, grabbed a piece, broke the bread into small pieces, and caught the goldfish that came up to nibble on the crumbs. Gulls, Nicolson observes, “are opportunistic omnivores,” but this one seemed uncommonly clever, although not as clever as crows, ravens, and parrots. Nurturing chicks does not always result in benevolence. Nicolson reminds readers of the “rawness” of animals, such as the “extraordinarily aggressive” gannet the Nazca booby, which lays two eggs a few weeks apart. If both hatch, the elder chick pushes its sibling out of the nest to its death by starvation or dehydration. Despite their resilience and adaptability, seabirds are vulnerable to climate change and pollution, such as rubbish and plastics, which shearwaters, fulmars, petrels, and albatrosses often mistake for food.
A buoyant celebration of seabirds that serves as an important reminder of nature’s fragility.