The Seabird’s Cry

Henry Holy & Co., 2018. $32, 416 pages.

FULMAR, puffin, kittiwake, gull, guillemot, cormorant and shag, shearwater, gannet, great auk “and its cousin razorbill,” albatross. The Seabird’s Cry accompanies a dozen birds out to sea and back in journeys of pure motion: dive, shear, strut, jab, squawk. But soured, warmed, and plastic-littered oceans hinder them. In a nimble and engrossing plea for their survival, author Adam Nicolson shepherds readers as close to avian consciousness as a human is likely to get.

Ever since his first visit to the rocky Shiant Islands in the North Atlantic, Nicolson has been drawn to seabirds. They cling in noisy colonies to cliffs and coasts, relying on communal knowledge and habit and environmental cues, some as subtle as the smell of plankton miles away, for their survival. “Densely packed, deeply secure information exchanges on the shores of richly stocked seas,” Nicolson writes: “[T]hat is the seabird’s idea of the beautiful place.”

Like its subjects, this book soars, brushing the wide waters of history, mythology, biology, and literature with the quick wings of the birds darting through them all. Each adult puffin,

to feed the chick and to survive itself, has to catch about 450 sandeels [fish] every day, at a metabolic cost to itself which has been calculated as the equivalent to a man spending his days knocking down brick walls with a sledgehammer.

In Mesolithic Denmark, Nicolson writes, “[s]tillborn children were buried on the wings of whooper swans.” He reminds us that Milton in Paradise Lost places the sinister cormorant atop the “Tree of Life . . . devising Death / to them who liv’d.” But in vivid field reports, he also shows us the living bird:

As I came over a lip of rock, there was the shag right in front of my face, a foot away, juddering and hissing, its whole head shaking in rage and fear, terrifying as much as it was terrified of me, a fluster of beautiful dark green iridescent feathers in the mayhem of kelp stalk and guano that was its nest.

Describing the elaborate fake-out by which gulls snatch young auks, Nicolson observes, “This is Homeric ambush warfare, gull as a master of deceit, one of us.”

In evoking Homer (the subject of his excellent Why Homer Matters), he also demonstrates the Homeric virtue of xenia, or hospitality: a generous curiosity that brings us alongside ostensibly foreign creatures and teaches us to see them clearly. “The world of the seabird is a universe of mystery, beauty, and wonder,” he writes. “It is not, beyond the necessary parental duties, one of care.” Yet respect for another being’s difference can coexist with the knowledge of its strangeness, even its fearsomeness. Describing Bass Rock, the biggest gannet colony in the world, Nicolson writes,

And so this stinking, death-encrusted, vivid, howling all-life gathering of gannets and their offspring — so shockingly intense that it is in a category beyond the beautiful — is no colony, no monument to togetherness, but a giant clutch of deeply individualized beings as much each other’s allies as arrows in a quiver, or athletes on a start line, or the axes bound in a Roman fasces. I have never witnessed life less accommodating.

In another part of the book, he tells of a man who picked up a wounded gannet from a beach; the bird “reached up and destroyed his right eye.”

The Seabird’s Cry never loses sight of the danger and wonder paired in regarding any wild thing. Indeed, as Nicolson writes of a fulmar on the wing, “An iceberg of otherness lies hidden beneath that visible surface.” The book honors that otherness while singing of, and serving, these creatures in their world:

That comes near the heart of their beauty: the mutual enveloping of what they are and where they are, with no boundary between organism and environment. Each enfolds the other so that they become the acrobats of ocean and wind, their liquid, floating, commanding presence one aspect of the natural world which requires nothing but a pair of eyes and a readiness to look.

As readers travel to the edges of the sea with these strange and marvelous birds, we also become aware of humankind’s long, fascinated, and fraught relationship to them all.