A buoyant celebration of seabirds that serves as an important reminder of nature’s fragility.




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.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-250-13418-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.


Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet