Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2015

Vol. 43, No. 3

About Books: Poysers and Auntie Eiders

Mark Lynch

The Common Eider. Chris Waltho and John Coulson. 2015. London, U.K.: T & AD Poyser.

It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. (Anne Fadiman. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader)

The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait. (Anatole Broyard. “About Books; Recoiling, Rereading, Retelling,” New York Times, February 22, 1987)

Walk into the home of any older serious birder and you will find a sizable library dedicated to that avocation. This will be more than just a random collection of field guides, identification guides, and where-to-find guides. Besides those basics, there will be numerous art books, coffee table tomes, and numbers of more academic books about migration, behavior, and ornithological history. If this “house of the seasoned birder" were in Britain, chances are you would also find an unique section of books in that library, often shelved together. These would be a distinctive collection of quality hardcover books on a wide variety of interesting ornithological subjects such as birds that eat berries or how birds are affected by weather. There would also be a number of monographs on specific species. Though the subject matter of these books would vary, all these hardcover books would have a very similar look. Although they might vary slightly in height and width, these books would have primarily white dust jackets with a beautiful original color artwork on the cover and spine and a seraph type used for the title. The beginning of each chapter of every book would include a wonderful piece of original black and white artwork. These books are books that beg to be read. These books would be “Poysers.”

Poysers are books published by T & AD Poyser, a name that is featured prominently on every cover. Over the years this name has been published as T & A.D. Poyser and T & AD Poyser. In 1973, the British Trevor and Anna Poyser decided to specialize in publishing quality ornithology books written by experts in the field. They started one of the most collectable series of natural history books, second only to the New Naturalist series. The Poysers often worked with the British Trust for Ornithology.

In January 1990, they sold the business to Academic Press. As is typical of the fate of independent publishing houses today, it was passed from one larger company to the next. The T & AD Poyser imprint was taken over by Harcourt Brace and then by Elsevier, a publisher of scientific books. Some of the titles have been released in the United States by Buteo Books or Yale University Press. Finally, in 2002, the brand and backlist was acquired by A & C Black Ltd, which in turn is part of Bloomsbury Publishing Group. Founded in 1986, Bloomsbury is an independent worldwide publishing house with offices in London, New Delhi, New York, and Sydney. Bloomsbury is now releasing new T & AD Poyser titles, and they are definitely maintaining the tradition of high quality bird books. Some of the new titles have a dark blue banner along the top of the cover, breaking up that stark white background, a variation that may seem a bit heretical to long-time Poyser reader/ collectors.

Poyser titles cover an amazing variety of subjects. There are detailed regional avifauna accounts for Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England that are much more than just annotated lists of species. Poyser published one of the first identification guides to a group of birds. Gulls: An Identification Guide by P.J. Grant was one of the first detailed plumage and ageing accounts of gulls and became a must- have volume for serious birders when it was released in 1982. The groundbreaking Flight Identification of European Raptors by Porter et al., published in 1974, was one of the first guides to raptors in flight. Some Poysers are concerned with non-European avifaunas, and there are books that cover migration in Gibraltar and the lives of birds in the Arctic. These are not identification guides, but include information on the ornithological history and avian behavior in those regions. Lost Land of the Dodo by Cheke and Hume (2008) covers not just the birds but the entire ecology of the island of Mauritius.

There are also a few Poysers that are not about birds at all, titles concerned with badgers, moths, and long-eared bats.

Some of my favorite Poysers were unique in birding literature at the time they were published. Birds By Night by Graham Martin (1990) describes the nocturnal behavior not just of owls and nightjars but of other species of birds we typically think of as diurnal. Man and Wildfowl by Janet Kear (1990) is a fascinating historical and anthropological look at humans’ relationship with ducks and geese, wild and domesticated.

The authors of Poyser volumes are usually people currently doing research on those species or subjects or in those locations. The noted British ornithologist J. Denis Summers-Smith spent his entire life studying the genus Passer, which includes the much-abused House Sparrow, which he dearly loved. The Sparrows by Summers-Smith is the definitive volume on all the species of these birds. He followed that with another Poyser title, In Search of Sparrows, which recounts his crazy adventures seeking all the House Sparrow relatives in some of the most out-of-the-way places on the globe.

Poyser is also justly famous for publishing state-of-the-art monographs on a variety of species. To date there have been Poysers about the Barn Owl, the “grey geese,” the Mandarin Duck, the Snowy Owl, the Kittiwake, the Raven, the (Eurasian) Kestrel, the Ruff, the Merlin, the Pinyon Jay, the Peregrine Falcon, and a number of other species. This year Poyser has published books about the Common Eider and the Barnacle Goose.

The Common Eider by Waltho and Coulson is a fine example of a Poyser monograph. The two authors are experts in their field. Chris Waltho "has been watching eiders since he was a boy. For more than 40 years he has been involved in surveying and monitoring them in the Clyde area of Scotland.” (text inside back dust jacket) For decades he has also been conducting other, wider ranging surveys of eiders with many volunteers. John Coulson does ecological research on seabirds and is the author of more than 160 scientific publications. There's a lot more listed for both authors, but suffice it to say that if you are looking for two people who really know a lot about eiders you could not do better than Waltho and Coulson.

If you have never read a well-written monograph on a bird species, the depth of the information in a monograph can be mind blowing. In The Common Eider, 17 pages are dedicated to plumage, physical descriptions, and illustrations of male, female, and immature eiders. Details of the eiders' geographical distribution and movements fill another 39 pages.


Common Eider. (Photograph by Sandy Selesky)

You may have been watching eiders for most of your birding life, but how well do you really know the bird? The following information is just a little of what you can find in The Common Eider.

For starters, this isn't the first book concerned with eiders. "More than 250 years ago, in 1763, Morten Thrane Briinnich, of Briinnich's Guillemot fame, wrote Die natiirliche Historie des Eider-Vogels. This is the earliest known publication solely dedicated to eider.” (p.11) Eiders have a long history of exploitation by humans, at least since the Paleolithic. Eiders have been sought after for their eggs, meat, and down. But in recent decades humans have caused even greater problems for these birds thanks to a seemingly never-ending series of oil spills and entrapments in fishing trawler nets.

Unlike the name “scoter,” the word “eider” is widely known to nonbirders around the world, mostly because of the down taken from the bird’s nest for clothing. It is the largest and heaviest duck in the northern hemisphere, heavier even than some of the smaller geese like Brant and Barnacle. Because of their short, pointed wings, eiders also have one of the highest wing-loadings found in any flying bird.

Eiders are the only northern hemisphere duck that occurs in marine environments year round.

Somateria species have been known from fossils dating back at least to the Pleistocene. There are at least seven recognized subspecies and fifteen biogeographic populations of eiders. Details of all are given in the book.

Eiders can dive to depths that measure from 42 to 60 meters. As anyone who has gone scuba diving knows, diving to these depths presents serious problems to air- breathing vertebrates, who can get “the bends.” So when diving deep, eiders switch from aerobic diving to anaerobic diving.

Eiders, like many other seabirds, have well developed salt glands, one above each eye, so they can ingest seawater. But when incubating, these salt glands become dramatically reduced. Newly hatched duckling eiders also have very small salt glands and typically need some fresh water in order to survive.

While working on the Breeding Bird Atlas II, we were surprised to find two groups of young eider ducklings with the attendant adult females along the shore of Gooseberry Neck. One of the reasons that you see young eider ducklings off Westport and other areas on the Massachusetts South Shore is that Maine birds were introduced to the Penikese Islands in the early 1970s. This program contributed to the southern expansion of the eider’s breeding range in North America to Dumpling Island (Fisher’s Island) in New York.

Because eiders are such hefty species, they are capable of taking the largest prey of any duck. The Common Eider lists 180 different prey species that eiders have been found to eat. More than half of these are mollusks, especially the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis). About a quarter of the other prey items are crustaceans, and most of the rest are echinoderms. On certain parts of the British coast eiders have also learned to eat bread thrown at them by locals and even survive on discarded fish and chips. Because eiders can eat such different prey items as razor clams, sea urchins, or crabs, they have developed a wide variety of behaviors to hold the prey items in their bills and get them down the gullet. Imagine trying to eat a live crab with no hands.

Eiders are in turn preyed upon by a number of interesting species. Nesting eiders are often prey to red and Arctic foxes. White-tailed Sea Eagles are significant predators of eiders where their ranges overlap. During the breeding season polar bears, brown bears, and even Snowy Owls all prey on eiders. Whenever you find exhaustive lists like the ones in this monograph, it’s fun to look for the odd bits of information, the outlier facts. So in The Common Eider you learn that on a certain island in Germany, hedgehogs became a significant predator on eider eggs, while in southwest Finland, eider nests fall victim to the appetites of the unusual raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides).

The most interesting chapters in The Common Eider are concerned with breeding, nesting, and raising young (pages 148–232). Eiders are typically described as “colonial nesters.” But Waltho and Coulson question this description. Eiders nest in a range of densities, from isolated pairs to 300 or more nests per hectare. Are they in fact colonial or just, in some cases, nesting close together because of a local shortage of suitable nesting habitat? This is more than just a question of semantics, as the authors point out, because it affects management strategies.

It is often stated that eiders who nest near gull colonies do not fare well because of predation. But Waltho and Coulson cite other researchers who claim that, although gulls take eggs and young, there may be greater overall advantages to nesting near gull colonies. Gulls can protect the eiders from more persistent predators like crows.

At present, the evidence of this benefit relies extensively on the study by Gotmark and Åhlund (1988), where the nest predators of eiders nesting on small islands off the coast of Sweden were Hooded Crows and gulls, but did not involve predatory mammals. They showed that about 15% of eider nests failed to hatch any ducklings due to predation on islands which did not have nesting gulls, while only 8% of nests failed on islands with gulls. The differences in nest predation rates were statistically significant in both 1982 and 1983, and were attributed to the protection from avian predators provided by nesting gulls. (p. 217)

The situation is complicated because gulls definitely have some impact on eider nesting. Are the eiders really benefiting or do they have no other choices for nesting locations and are therefore forced to nest near nesting gulls? In 1989 Swennen did an extensive study of eider duckling mortality and found that much mortality was in fact due to the ducklings starving because they could not find appropriate food. In years when there was high duckling mortality, it was because food sources were so scarce the ducklings had to wander farther from the protection of the adults and therefore were more often preyed on by gulls. So the main problem wasn’t the gulls, it was food availability.

Despite Swennen’s study, there is still controversy about the impact of gulls and predation on eider ducklings and there have been several proposals on the eastern coast of the USA and Canada to cull the large gulls nesting on islands where eiders also nest. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence from both sides of the Atlantic that disturbance of females with ducklings by the general public, and even by researchers, greatly increases the level of predation by gulls. In the absence of disturbance of ducklings by walkers, dogs, jet skis, and small boats, the predation on ducklings is often much lower, and breeding eiders can and often do coexist with gulls. Those who advocate extensive culling of large gulls for the benefit of eiders need to first evaluate the impact of gulls on eiders in the absence of human disturbance and to bear in mind the lesson of not jumping too quickly to a conclusion, so well illustrated by Swennen’s excellent work. (p. 250)

Whether eiders benefit from or simply have to tolerate the disadvantages of nesting alongside gulls needs research, particularly in situations where the gulls are nesting at different densities. (p. 218)

Common Eiders form crèches after the ducklings hatch. These are groups of up to 100 ducklings that are watched over by a few females, typically far fewer females than would be expected for that large number of ducklings. This crèche system is used by other waterfowl species; in north Quabbin I have seen large groups of Common Mergansers attended by only a few adult females.

Common Eiders also have an alternative strategy. Sometimes very small broods are accompanied by more than one adult female eider. Waltho and Coulson call this the “auntie system.” Though it has been described as occurring a number of times, little is known about who the other females are. There are four possibilities. These “aunties” could be failed breeders, young (two or three year old) females, adult females who have skipped breeding that year for some reason, or actually closely related females. More research is needed.

The last chapter of The Common Eider is written by Diana Solovyeva, one of the few researchers who has studied all four eider species, and she compares plumages and behaviors of Common, King, Spectacled, and Steller’s eiders.

The Common Eider is a classic monograph: thorough, scholarly, and well written. Though certainly scholarly, the book is absolutely geared to the average intelligent reader who wants to learn more about eiders. The Common Eider includes a nice section of full-color plates. There are also seven appendices that include a list of major conservation sites for the eiders, an exhaustive list of species that eiders prey on, and charts on duckling growth. A welcome addition to the T & AD Poyser pantheon.

...I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like...
Books, records, films - these things matter. (Rob, in the film High Fidelity)

Literature Cited:

  • Briinnich, M.T. 1763. Die natiirliche Historie des Eider-Vogels. Kopenhagen: J.G. 
  • Rothen Cheke, A., and J. Hume. 2008. Lost Land of the Dodo. London, UK: T & AD Poyser.
  • Fadiman, A. 2000. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Grant, P. J. 1982. Gulls: An Identification Guide. Staffordshire, England: T & AD Poyser. 
  • Kear, J. 1990. Man and Wildfowl. London, UK: T & AD Poyser.
  • Martin, G. 1990. Birds By Night. London, UK: T & AD Poyser.
  • Porter, R. F., I. Willis, S. Christensen, and B. P. Nielsen. 1974. Flight Identification of European Raptors. Staffordshire, England: T & A.D. Poyser Ltd.
  • Summers-Smith, J. D. 1988. The Sparrows. Staffordshire, England: T & AD Poyser.
  • Summers-Smith, J. D. 1992. In Search of Sparrows. London, UK: T & A D Poyser.
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