I’ve always enjoyed time spent by the sea, and particularly Britain’s cliffs and the plethora of seabirds to be seen there. Beeston Cliffs, St Abbs Head, South Stack, Duncansby Head, Summer Isles, cliffs of the South West of England and Wales, and more… So many places. Until recently I never questioned if these great massings of seabirds would ever not be there. Yet they are in perilous decline and danger, as are seabird colonies the world over. Industrial fishing, pollution and climate breakdown are presenting insuperable problems to many species. The spectre of multiple extinctions looms.
In his magnificent and illustrated book The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson takes us through the glory of common species of seabirds, the threats they face and the effects on populations, mostly declining. It is a story at the same time beautifully told, yet almost impossible to bear.
A few of my notes will give a flavour, or skip to the summary below.
- Fulmar, the most streamlined of birds. Able to fly without effort in a gale, which would ground most birds. Fulmars once supported the population of the remote island of St Kilda, at times the only source of food.
- Puffin, specialised for deep diving in search of fish and not good flyers. Live in colonies of burrows, and rear but a single egg at a time. Many populations have been decimated or lost, such as the Westman Islands off Iceland.
- Kittiwake lives on high cliffs and the open sea, good flyers but shallow divers. Call sounds like their name: kittiwaaak. Persecution in 19c led to the 1869 Seabird Preservation Act. Populations in steep decline.
- Gulls, opportunists, shore birds. White camouflage for taking prey. Prolific breeders, cannibals, expanding on land where they can find food. 34 species.
- Guillemot, deep diver, long beak. Very close nesting on cliff in families.
- Cormorant /Shag, bird of greed. Dark one. Shallow diver. Need to dry feathers to restore insulating properties, hence the characteristic ‘wings out’ stance. Many die young. Expanding inland.
- Shearwater, dip wingtips in water hence name. Related to Fulmar. Sleep in burrows, wait for night cover before entering. Many migrate to southern hemisphere. Strong sense of smell.
- Gannet, plunge divers. Dense colonies, eg currently on Bass Rock. Ferociously competitive. Currently booming in North Atlantic.
- Razorbill, chicks fledge with father at sea. Declining. Relative of the extinct great auk. Retells the story of the great auk.
- Albatross, among the largest birds with 11ft wingspan. Live by the wind, travelling many thousands of miles. Follow ships and have inspired many sailors. Live for many years and whiten as get older. Declining, spectre of extinction.
In his last chapter Nicolson summarises The Seabird’s Cry.
Populations of seabirds across the globe have fallen by 2/3 in 60 years. Just cormorants and gannets buck the trend. The culprits are fishing practices, pollution and climate change. His words express this so much better than I can:
“There are no grounds for complacency… The great extinction is going on every day and the rate of change in the nature of the oceans is almost certainly too rapid for many of the inbuilt resilience mechanisms to cope.”
“The grand cry of a seabird colony, rolling in its clamour around the bays and headland of high latitudes, will become a memory, its absence unnoticed because people will not miss what is not there. ”
“What is to be done? Only all that can be done… the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the ocean, both its temperature and its acidity, needs to be brought under control. “
At stake is humanity’s whole relationship with nature. Are we to destroy the paradise we were born into, because we got too many, too unthinking and too greedy?
“The seabirds and their colonies were and are a last bastion of wholeness…”
A necessary, poetic and disturbing book.
Featured image of northern royal albatross by Benchill [Public domain]