In 1978, Adam Nicolson received three Hebridean islands as a 21st birthday present from his father, Nigel. The Shiants, each about a mile long, were uninhabited, with just one rat-infested bothy: not everyone’s idea of paradise. But, precisely because human beings had neglected them, wild life flourished — the islands were ‘thick with the swirl of existence’, thrumming with life and death, suffering and triumph, ferocity and conquest. Sea Room (2002) is Nicolson’s rousing love lilt to the Shiants, for him the most beautiful place on earth. In The Seabird’s Cry he homes in on their seabirds, and the tiny islands become a microcosm from which he moves from the particular — lying on the cliffs, looking a fulmar dead in the eye — to the panoramic. Driven by an almost obsessive desire to understand the birds, he travels to St Kilda, Orkney, Shetland, the Faroes and Norway, to Newfoundland, Ascension, the Falklands and South Georgia, the Canaries and the Azores.
We are living in the Anthropocene — the epoch during which the Earth’s geology and ecosystems are shaped by the activities of man. It is a ‘literal truth’, Nicolson claims, that every fulmar and albatross has eaten plastic. And by 2050, almost all seabird species will have plastic in their stomachs. Nicolson is keen to put man in his place. Seabirds inhabited the earth 100 million years ago. By comparison, human beings, at 50,000 to 60,000 years old, are latecomers.
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And it’s not just the birds’ longevity that should give us pause for thought. Nicolson has been deeply influenced by the work of Jakob von Uexküll, a German Baltic biologist born in Estonia in 1864. For von Uexküll, every living species had what he called its Umwelt — a kind of inscape, encompassing its own particular nature and genius. Human beings need to recognise that there is a multiplicity of Umwelten —and to accept that ‘we have no monopoly on intelligence’.
In the 19th century, whalers tracked albatrosses by tarring their feathers. But modern tracking devices — minuscule, all-but-weightless satellite loggers, heart monitors, depth-gauges and wetness detectors — mean that we can begin to understand seabirds in a way that would have been inconceivable even a few decades back. And in ten chapters, each devoted to a different bird or group of birds, Nicolson takes us inside their lives and habits in way that, for a reader like me — hazy about the distinction between a kittiwake and a gull — is breathtaking.
Albatrosses, which he observes from the freezing deck of a supply ship making its way from South Georgia to Port Stanley, can live till 90, are generally mono-gamous and travel around five million miles in a lifetime. They are so skilled at riding the winds that their journeys require no more physical exertion than ‘the effort made by a man watching cricket in a deckchair for a summer afternoon’. Puffins — also long-lived and largely faithful to their mates —nest, growling, in burrows a yard long, at the end of which they lay one giant egg. The bright colourings by which we know them disappear as soon as they head out for a solitary winter at sea. Gannets are so innately aggressive that the male bites the nape of the female’s neck during sex and frequently attacks her when she returns to the nest. Guillemots have huge eyes, can spot their mates several hundred metres out across the ocean, and can dive to 600 feet, staying underwater for nearly five minutes. Shearwaters have such an acute sense of smell that they are able to create ‘smell maps’ with which to navigate their way around the ocean. And so on.
Nicolson is uniquely placed to enter into seabirds’ worlds. Where they are at home, he is too. He’s happy enough on the seafront at Hastings, watching gulls landing on ‘shit-strewn’ streetlights. But he’s in his element in a roofless shieling on North Rona, the most distant of all the British isles, with fulmars flying two feet above his head, emitting ‘the most beautiful sound I have ever heard a seabird make: not a cry but the rustling of air in their feathers, a kind of folded aural blanket overhead’.
His mind is well stocked and acrobatic, and capable of vivid connections. A puffin colony, with its display of tyranny and pantomime, puts him in mind of an event staged in the Libyan desert by the young Colonel Gaddafi in the 1980s — a ‘bizarre mix of the charlatan and the real, of the charismatic and the stage-managed, of magnetism and latent brutality’. And he has an intuitive understanding of the birds that feels almost uncanny. ‘Only in the ecstatic moments of life,’ he writes ‘can we come near to knowing the reality of a bird’s mind’: an astonishing claim, but we trust it.
Nicolson does not rely solely on his own instincts and observations. In writing this book he has subsumed ‘thousands of years’ of work that scientists have dedicated to understanding seabirds. His gift is to present this research in a way that is not just comprehensible but compelling, even moving, and to intercut it with dazzling description. On the Shiants, he watches a colony of guillemots lift off a cliff as a black-backed gull flies over them: ‘It looked like the rippling of a single wing, a feathered eruption, a dark and magnificent beating of life itself.’ Seabirds ‘cross the boundary between the matter-of-fact and the imagined.’ Nicolson crosses this boundary too. His swithering between the forensic and the poetic creates a sense of wonder.
Wonder, he hopes, will become a spur to action. Every summer, 70,000 tons of seabird fly around the shores of the British Isles. Even for someone as attuned to the birds as Nicolson it is hard to notice their year-on-year decline. But all is not well. Overfishing, global warming disturbing the ocean food webs, pollution and the introduction of rodents and other animals to breeding places are ushering in an apocalypse. In the last 60 years, the seabird population across the world has declined by two-thirds. Some scientists estimate that by the end of this century most of the world’s seabirds will have disappeared. On St Kilda, in 1999, there were 513 occupied kittiwake nests and 56 chicks were born. Last year there were just four occupied nests and a single fledgling. Lack of food drives parent birds to go foraging together, leaving their young to die of starvation or attack. Guillemots have begun to attack their nesting neighbours with savage jabs to the head and body, leaving thousands dead. On the Shiants, the colonies of fulmars have largely disappeared. Nicolson looks down from a knoll at just four or five birds ‘with too much air between them, as touching and vulnerable as the last of the travellers in a station at midnight’.
What can we do? Nicolson has taken one practical step. Since the 18th century, the Shiants had been overrun by ship rats, deposited by wrecks and enemies to the seabirds. Over the winter of 2015–16 he arranged for a team of catchers to move in. The islands were spread with poisoned peanut butter and every single rat eliminated. It’s ‘the slightest of gestures’, he says — a drop in the ocean. But the ocean is made up of drops.
Maggie Fergusson has worked for the Royal Society of Literature since 1992 and is the author of a biography of Michael Morpurgo.