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The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers
Read date: Jan 2019

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this to be a deeply researched, thoughtful, beautiful insight into the lived experience and ecosystems of ten different species of seabirds. And simultaneously, a heart-wrenching, terrifying, glimpse into the impact of the human world on their breeding and feeding grounds, their populations and their individual lives.

Early on, Adam Nicolson introduces the concept of “umwelt”, created by Joakob von Uexkull after reading Kant and his idea that our minds shape the world we perceive:

The German means ‘surrounding world’, but more largely, as primatologist Frans de Waal has described it, Uexkull had in mind a vision of the animal’s ‘self-centred subjective world, which represents only a small tranche of all available worlds’. Each species lives in its own unique sensory universe, to which we may be partially or wholly blind, and so we must not speak of animal ‘cognition’ or animal ‘intelligence’, but in the plural of ‘cognitions’ and ‘intelligences’. Each animal’s ‘meaning-world’ cannot be understood on any terms except its own.

This concept of umwelt drives the rest of the book. In ten chapters, Nicolson tries to show us the meaning-world of birds from Fulmars to Gannets and Albatrosses. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, book, with an important message. Quite how we individually can help with these large-scale coordination problems is a challenge that besets the modern age, as we drive in our ton-and-a-half of steel’s worth of cars, burning irreplaceable fuels, to trendy cafes where we sip eco-friendly lattes (made with almond milk – using ten times the water of dairy milk to farm – and rare breed coffee, farmed on the former habitat of we-care-not-what animals), congratulating ourselves that we no longer use a plastic straw to sip through. Whatever we are doing, it’s clear it’s too little, and may well be too late.

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