Working for birds in Africa

Seabirds: A Natural History

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 13:06 -- abc_admin
Anthony J. Gaston, 2004. London, UK: T. & A. D. Poyser. 222pp, 22 colour plates, numerous maps, tables, figures, line drawings and black-and-white photographs. Hardback. ISBN 0 7136 65572.
pages 74 - 75

Whilst ten species of seabird flurry about their business and Minke Whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata breach, I try to concentrare on writing this review off north-west Scotland. The review grinds to a halt as a whale dives beneath our boat, its streamlined shape visible in the clear, clear waters of the Minch. I think Tony Gaston would forgive my lapse for he weaves many similar moments from the 30-odd years of his seabird past into the narrarive of his book. That said the book is not a compilation of anecdotes from salt-sprayed corners of the globe.

Rather, it is an attempt to pull together and then explain unifying features of seabird biology. Here is a sample of the questions tackled. Why are there so few small seabird species (<20 g) when most landbirds are of this size? Why are seabird wings the shape they are? (One of the most interesting sections.) Why do seabirds not eat jellyfish? (Easy: they neither taste nice nor provide much nourishment.) Why do seabirds lay such small clutches? (David Lack foreshadowed most of the answers.)

Thus the coverage is wide and generally illuminating. It is, almost inevitably given Tony Gaston's track record, biased towards auks, with Africa receiving scant mention. There remain intriguing puzzles such as why it should be male murres that generally accompany the chick to sea. And some statements such as 'age at first breeding appears to be determined by adult mortality' beg for more explanation.

Of course in such a wonderfully wide-ranging book there are mistakes. The Faroese and the Italians, to name but two, might contest the British endemicity of the British Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus. And I fear there is a risk that the book will be perceived as falling between the two stools occupied by the heavyweight academic and the reader who enjoys Ronald Lockley's undemanding prose. But please run the risk whatever your preferred stool. Seabirds offers much entertaining instruction, distilled from what is, in effect, an overview of Tony Gaston's working life.

Michael Brooke

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