The Puffin, by Mike P. Harris and Sarah Wanless

Published on 20 February 2012 in Book reviews

Poyser, 2011; hbk, 256pp; 44 colour and 7 black-and-white photographs; 31 line-drawings; ISBN 978-1-4081-0867-3; Subbuteo code M02254, £50.00

I was delighted to take on the task of reviewing this book, but slightly horrified to find that it was over a quarter of a century since Mike Harris had produced his previous monograph on this species. How time flies! I first met Mike Harris in the early 1970s, when the focus of his attentions was on the gulls and Manx Shearwaters Puffinus puffinus of the Pembrokeshire islands. He soon moved north to the Isle of May and has spent much of the last 40 years engaged in a long-term study of breeding (Atlantic) Puffins Fratercula arctica there and elsewhere. My first contact with Sarah Wanless came a decade later, during the first of a series of ten-yearly international censuses of Northern Gannets Morus bassanus.

I have always been a little envious of this couple who have managed to organise their lives to spend their summers living on enigmatic seabird islands carrying out detailed studies of the breeding biology and ecology of such interesting and attractive seabirds. They have shared their findings with the ornithological community through their prolific publication in the scientific literature, and with a wider readership through Mike’s 1984 Poyser, The Puffin, and now in this joint publication with Sarah.

A short introduction leads quickly to the main body of the work, 15 chapters and 186 pages of it. The first five chapters place the world’s three puffin Fratercula species among the other auks, summarise the studies which have been carried out so far, and describe the appearance, development and moult of the (Atlantic) Puffin, and its distribution and status in Britain, Ireland, France, Iceland, the Faeroes, Norway (including Svalbard), Russia, Greenland, Canada and the USA. The book then gets down to the nitty-gritty of the (mainly) breeding biology of the species, with six chapters covering colony attendance, chick rearing and breeding success, behaviour, food and feeding, predators, pirates, parasites and competitors, survival of Puffins, and the Isle of May populations (where much of the research has been carried out by the authors). Finally, there are four chapters which deal with Puffins away from the colonies: the interactions between Puffins and people, other threats to Puffins, an overview of the present situation, and finally some insights to the future for the species.

The text of the main part of the book is enhanced by 28 informative tables and 78 figures – a significant and welcome increase on the 20 and 47 (respectively) in the 1984 edition. I was particularly pleased to see that long-standing Scottish seabird enthusiast Kenny Taylor was invited back to write the chapter on Puffin behaviour, as he did so ably in the 1984 edition. His contribution is invaluable.

What Puffins do during the seven months of the year when they are away from the breeding colonies is still something of a mystery. In the past, most information was obtained from rather few recoveries of ringed birds accumulated over many decades. However, the recent introduction of electronic data-loggers and other devices, which can be fitted on Puffins and retrieved later for downloading accumulated data, has opened up exciting possibilities for finding out more about this part of the Puffin’s annual cycle. Chapter 12 covers preliminary findings from the new technology and shows an Isle of May Puffin spending much of its non-breeding time foraging in the northwest Atlantic south of Greenland and east of Newfoundland. No doubt the third edition of the book will have a greatly extended chapter on this topic!

The book is amply illustrated throughout. Developments in digital photography have inevitably led to an improvement in the quality of the colour photographs used (44, by many different photographers). I am pleased to note that these are used not just to provide beautiful portraits of Puffins, but to illustrate various activities and behaviours of these colonial and sociable little seabirds. Also included are several older black-and-white photos of historical interest. As in the first edition, Keith Brockie has provided many black-and-white line-drawings (and colour illustrations for the dust jacket). While all these are excellent, I have to say that I prefer some of his illustrations in the earlier book.

The 1984 edition contained just two appendices: one listing the scientific names of species mentioned in the book, and the other sources of the counts/estimates used. This edition contains 14 appendices (32 pages), covering the above topics but also a large amount of other data, including measurements of adults Puffins, chicks and eggs, fledging weights, timing of breeding and breeding success, diet, weights of fish prey species. The first edition contained just over 300 references, while this one has 525, which reflects the amount of work published on this species over the last quarter of a century. The reference list appears comprehensive, covering English and other language publications from across the breeding range of the Puffin from northeast Canada to Svalbard and northwest France. I did some random checks on the index and found it was comprehensive and worked well in locating the topics that I was searching for.

I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this new edition of The Puffin to all who are interested in seabirds, especially this enigmatic and much-loved species. Those who have the first edition will find it well worthwhile acquiring this edition too, as so much has been learnt about the species in the intervening period.

Oscar J. Merne

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