The Seabird's Cry - the lives and loves of puffins, gannets and other ocean voyagers

Adam Nicolson
The Seabird's Cry

Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry is a work of such intelligence, such passion and such craft that you may never think of seabirds in the same way again. It is a volume dense with experience, sifted research, anecdote and dogged explanations whose cumulative effect is to bring to life a dozen or so of our planet’s birds of the open seas.

From now on a fulmar is not just a fulmar, nor a puffin just a puffin, and so on for kittiwake, gull, guillemot, cormorant, shag, shearwater, gannet, razorbill and that greatest of all the ocean wanderers, the albatross. Adam Nicolson addresses their irreducible presence on their own terms as — in his exquisite phraseology — “edge-choosers, creatures whose lives have stepped beyond the ordinary into environments of such difficulty that they can respond only with a slow, cumulative mastery which amounts in the end to genius”. In his mind, these birds are “the living skin of our ocean shores”. This book explores why these birds deserve our attention as their grip on existence is tested by the winnowing winds of habitat degradation.

Nicolson is much taken by the work of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, for whom an understanding of the sensory and cognitive structures that shape a creature’s perceived environment is central to understanding it. Uncovering this Umwelt should be the objective of a scientist’s work. What is the unique sensory universe that a creature occupies, its self-centred subjective world? It is this question that the author tries to answer for each of these sea birds. Rather than seeing them solely as the objects of scientific research, measured, weighed and analysed, he aims for some form of deeper and more significant understanding.

These are creatures that have evolved over a period a two and a half million years — against mankind’s fifty to sixty thousand years. Indeed, there are ancestors in the fossil record dating back 100 million years that are seabird-like, whereas for bipedal hominids there is nothing with that deep-time lineage.

Scientific research and poetry can each operate as windows onto the same thing, but the author seems to me to be bringing these together here in a prose style as vivid and compelling as one could want, sometimes unbearably so … just four examples to whet your appetite:

For the puffin: having unveiled to us reams of scientific data and personal observation about the bird’s precarious and tenacious life on an ever-changing ocean, we are urged “next time you sit among the puffins on a summer evening, looking at their elegance and anxiety … that is what to hold in mind, not clowns but beauties, Ice Age survivors, scholar-gypsies of the Atlantic … the oscillating nomad-masters of an unpacific ocean”.

For the fulmar: “Now and then a strange lack of certainty runs through a fulmar, even as it makes these Euclidean diagrams beneath you, a whole-body hesitation, coughing in mid-flight, when it shudders and disassembles, all sleekness gone and all purpose paused, as if waiting for the data stream to resume …”

For the kittiwake as if in a dream: “I have once, after a difficult and anxious journey in a small open boat across the Minch, had a kittiwake come and hang over me, a few feet above the top of the mast, looking down and inspecting me and my belongings in the open hull as if I were the strange creature and she the scientist or the proprietor of this sea world”.

Having had similar experiences in France — albeit with landlubber hoopoes — I am aware how bewitching this can be. Once, at the end of a summer’s day, three hoopoes in their bounding, loping flight, came across the garden towards us. One stopped awhile and hovered for perhaps ten seconds maybe ten feet above us with a keen and inquisitive eye. Then maybe ten years later, indoors, as I was working at my desk, a tap on the window glass behind me caused me to turn and find a solitary hoopoe standing on the outside window ledge, looking in, intent on me and my world. It stayed a while before stepping back into space and hovering eighteen inches from the glass, still eyeing me for a further ten seconds before twisting off and away. Making this a trio of magic, another hoopoe — or maybe the same one, who knows — escorted our car down our driveway, out onto the lane and up and out of the valley, before peeling off on its own business. Whether it stayed just ahead of me, or me just behind it at a safe distance and slow and steady pace, I couldn’t say. It was the most mesmerising four hundred yards of hypnotic driving I can recall!

A hoopoe is one thing. Long-distance migrator, Africa to Europe and back every year, zig-zagging a learned flight-path, but one over occupied territory. Seabirds do this, each species with a different distance, destination and duration, but it is over wave, sea and ocean. Imagine making a living in that emptiness!

For the gannet massed on Bass Rock, the biggest breeding colony in the world: “Go there today and you find a place of rage and desperation. Energy runs like whips through it. Anxiety, intensity and wariness is in every corner. Walk through the gannets and they slash at your calves. Stare at them and they stare back with a look beyond fear or hate, a gaze from machine eyes as heartless as a bank of cameras”.

There — in a nutshell — is the urgent genius of this book: mastery of detail and a passionate appreciate of subject, delivered with spell-binding clarity. If you have any interest in seabirds, you will saviour this book’s every word. If birds don’t interest you, this book may change your mind.

(Huge thanks to dear friends Tony and Sally who were kind enough to present me with this to mark a recent ‘big’ birthday!)