Saturday 20 January 2018

Comical birds in carnival masks

Colourful: Puffins can carry up to a dozen fish at a time. Photo: Michael Kelly
Colourful: Puffins can carry up to a dozen fish at a time. Photo: Michael Kelly

Joe Kennedy

Not many people may know that the Shiant Isles (na h-Eileanan Seunta), that lie between Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, are home to thousands of puffins, those comical-looking seabirds that nest in rabbit burrows.

Few also might not be aware that the mother of US President Donald Trump came from Lewis (five miles from the Shiants) and that she was a Gaelic-speaking girl named McLeod who emigrated, as did many young Irishwomen, in the early 20th century, to work in New York.

The Shiants are privately owned though in centuries past the McLeods of Lewis had a grip on those rocky outposts which were "very profitable for corne, store and fishing", according to Donald Monro, Dean of the Isles, in 1549.

The author Compton Mackenzie once owned them but in 1937 they were bought by Nigel Nicholson (then a student, later writer and politician), whose son, Adam, wrote an entrancing book about the place called Sea Room.

The property has now passed to his son Tom.

Apart from the puffins there is the saga of the rats - thousands of black ones (the ship rat, Rattus rattus), which have caused havoc among the birds over the years but now may have been finally eliminated in a million-pound scheme funded by the EU, Scottish Heritage, the RSPB and private donors.

St Kilda, another Scottish isle, may hold the greatest concentration of Atlantic breeding puffins but these colourful creatures may also be found in Irish pockets in Wexford, Cork, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal and Antrim, and in Dublin, according to BirdWatch Ireland, there are some breeding birds on Lambay and Ireland's Eye.

Unmistakable in summer months, the bird's big round head holds its huge triangular bill of red, blue and yellow plates.

It waddles across grassy slopes outside breeding burrows, excavated by those carnival-mask spade beaks and sharp claws - or has purloined the homes of departed (or nearly so) rabbits to lay its single egg.

The puffin is the "little friar" (Fratercula arctica) and its enormous popularity is reflected on book jackets, stamps and product logos. Its collective name is "a circus of puffins". Paired birds clash their bills, waddling comically, chasing one another and tumbling down slopes.

It has a unique fishing system - it can catch and hold fish simultaneously and may be seen arriving with beakfuls of sand-eels and other small fry to hungry youngsters, carrying up to a dozen at a time held crosswise in hinged mandibles.

As each fish is caught it is gripped between tongue and upper mandible, freeing the lower mandible for further catches.

There are also small hooks in the roof of the mouth.

Once the breeding season ends the birds disperse widely, wintering off Newfoundland and Greenland.

Their beaks' bright carapace is shed and the livery changes to darker hues. The orange legs fade to yellow.

As well as making TV documentaries on the Shiants, Adam Nicholson has written a new book called The Seabird's Cry (Harper-Collins).

There's a puffin on the cover, of course.

Sunday Independent

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