a review by Rosemary McKinnon
In 2018 I visited an old school friend in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The weather was auspicious and we decided to take a boat to the offshore islands of Skomer and Skokholm. Puffins were returning to nest in their burrows after spending the winter feeding in the mid-Atlantic. Gannets and skuas circled overhead. Living here in landlocked Montana this was my first opportunity to watch seabirds. Inspired by this visit I read Adam Nicholson’s book, the Seabird’s Cry which describes the extraordinary adaptations made by seabirds to their environment of air, ocean and land as well as their precipitous decline due to warming seas, overfishing and oceans filled with plastic detritus from the age of man.
This book is not merely a description of scientific revelations regarding the lives of ten seabirds (aided by satellite loggers, miniature heart monitors, depth gauges, wetness detectors and accelerometers), although these are fascinating, but also it is a work of literature. It aims also to explore an older understanding of birds as symbols of the state of the ocean and the world.
My favorite chapter might be the one in which Nicholson discusses puffins. He likens their return to the “Feeding of the Five thousand: so much from so little, so fertile a place of stone and salt sea, a flush of existence like a desert which rains have summoned the flowers. This arrival, when the birds glow against the evening is an ocean giving birth.” Nicholson goes on to trace the arrival of puffins in the N. Atlantic 5 million years ago at the time of the birth of the Gulf Stream. He describes their mating and parenting as that of “long-term investors banking on one big egg per year, 6 weeks for incubation and 6 weeks feeding the young chick.” In hard times puffins travel as much as 300 miles to do so, both parents diving between 600 – 1,150 times a day and spending as much as 7 hours a day underwater. Much of the research done on Skomer demonstrates that each puffin follows a different route in search of food. Nicholson suggest that when we see puffins we should think of them “not (as) clowns but beauties, Ice Age survivors, scholar-gypsies of the Atlantic, their minds on an everlasting swing between island and sea, burrow and voyage, parent and child, the oscillating nomad-masters of an unpacific ocean.”
It is horrifying to read Nicholson’s account of the dwindling population of Atlantic puffins which are under frightening pressures from climate change and the disappearance of prey. He gives an account of visiting a puffin colony off the coast of Iceland where the locals were aware that mass deaths were occurring every year since the 1970s. There were simply not enough local fish to feed the chicks. Nicholson records “a straightforward cascade: warm seas, thin new species of plankton, thin or absent sandeels, voracious mackerel, hungry seabirds, dead chicks.” By the end of the 21 century the population of puffins will be down by 80%.
Nicholson’s tragic message is that we are coming to understand seabirds just as they are dying. During the past 60 years the population of seabirds has declined by two-thirds. They have lived for 100 million years superbly adapted to the ocean and the air, returning to land only to lay eggs, and now we are destroying them.