Review: The Puffin by Mike P Harris and Sarah Wanless
Do you want to know about them? I mean, really, really know about them? Of course you do. The Atlantic Puffin is one of the most charismatic of auks. I’m pretty sure that the only way that anyone could dislike Atlantic Puffins is in some kind of ironic way… but no, with its bright beak and earnestness, the puffin is also well-placed for hipster love, so they have that covered. If you meet someone who claims to dislike puffins, you should check in case that person is an evil robot.
That said, only the most elite puffin afficianados can claim to be the target audience for The Puffin by Mike P. Harris and Sarah Wanless. This weighty new tome from Yale University Press stakes out a fair claim to be the Atlantic Puffin Bible — seizing that crown from a previous, out-of-print volume from 1984, also entitled The Puffin and also written by one Mike Harris. Mike P. Harris has been studying the Atlantic Puffin since 1972, a lifetime’s work that shows in his dedication to completeness and detail.
Both Harris and his co-author, Wanless, study their puffins on the Isle of May off Scotland, and as a result the bulk of the book is centered on Britain specifically, and Europe more generally. That said, the purpose is to cover the world-wide puffin picture, and North American puffin redoubts like Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, and Machias Seal Island (confusingly referred to by the joint term Matinicus Seal Island in at least one instance.)
Though it’s not exactly plot-driven, The Puffin is well-structured in the classic manner, building from an overview of the Atlantic Puffin’s taxonomy and range through the specifics of breeding behavior, including food selection, chick rearing success, and parasite and predator problems. Following this is a chapter dedicated to the wintering behavior of Atlantic Puffins, a formerly mysterious subject that’s only recently opened to scientific scrutiny thanks to advances in geolocator technology. That said, the field is in its infancy and this is a short chapter. The book then concludes with a chapter on human/puffin relations and two on the current and future picture for the Atlantic Puffin’s survival, with a chaser of no less than fourteen appendixes detailing such lovely esoterica as the numbers and sizes of fish brought to young puffins at the Isle of May over the past four decades of study time.
Indeed, the book is rich with appendixes, also maps, tables, charts, and charming line drawings by Keith Brockie, as well as a selection of color photographs. The text is saturated with figures and citations. You would have to be in a very particular sort of mindset to find this entertaining, as such — but I enjoyed flipping through it, dipping into it here and there to find little sand-eel sized nibbles of knowledge. If you want to know about puffins, oh you will.