Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena

Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena

by Louis Joseph Halle


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The first part of this book describes a wide variety of seabirds from the author's personal observation and knowledge of their ways; the second offers reflective essays on the general theme of birds in their relation to man.

Originally published in 1970.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691617619
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1455
Pages: 282
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.10(d)

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The Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena

By Louis J. Halle


Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09349-9



The birds whose lives are the most remote from human knowledge are those that spend them far from land in the wastes of the ocean. Even when they come to land for breeding, as they must, it may be only at night, and then only to disappear into underground burrows or fissures of rock.

Most of us know such birds, if at all, by seeing them from shipboard. If they are large birds that follow ships, we then have an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with them in these United circumstances. But the birds I am about to treat of here, although they do follow ships, are the smallest of seabirds. All one sees, ordinarily, is fluttering specks in the trough of the wave.

The order Procellariiformes combines an exceptional distinctiveness with a variety exemplified by the fact that it includes both the largest and the smallest of all the seabirds that fly: the Wandering Albatross, with a wingspread of almost twelve feet, and the Storm Petrel, the size of a swallow. In between are a wide assortment of petrels and shearwaters.

On the wing or on the wave the Storm Petrel, only six inches long, appears all black except for a flashing white rump. At sea it dangles its delicate feet to patter over the waves in fluttering flight. When oceanic storms rage for days, with the great combers incessantly crashing along their courses, this little bird somehow survives. Either it must be constantly fluttering in the turbulence without sleep, or it is able to sleep head-under-wing on the tumultuous surface, tossed to the sky, caught in the shattering whitecap, dropped again into the depth of the trough. There is reason to doubt that it makes much distinction between night and day at sea, although it is strictly nocturnal on its breeding grounds.

One of the breeding places is the uninhabited island of Mousa in Shetland. Mousa is less than a mile and a half in its greatest length, hardly more than a thousand yards in its greatest width. A rockbound coast encloses the usual moors of grass, heather, and sphagnum moss, on which sheep and Shetland ponies graze, on which Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas breed; also the usual peat bogs, and a fresh-water loch on which Red-throated Loons raise their young.

This island has, however, a distinction and a fame that have nothing to do with birds. On it is the best preserved of those prehistoric fortresses called "brochs," of which some five hundred are still identifiable in remains scattered over the mainland and the islands of northern Scotland. The birds that are the subject of this chapter, and about which so little can be known, are associated (as we shall see) with the Broch of Mousa, about which virtually nothing is known.

It is a round tower on the coast, forty-three feet high and fifty feet in diameter at its base. It slopes inward in a curve that is convex in its lower half, and slightly concave in its upper, to a summit forty feet in diameter. The construction is of uncut local stones that are, for the most part, naturally flat and no larger than what one could pick up with one hand — a primitive construction lacking cement. Nevertheless, it is tight, its solidity attested by the fact that the broch has endured the high winds of Shetland since the time of Christ. Its wall is some fifteen feet thick at the base, but on the inside it accommodates in its thickness chambers or galleries, as well as a staircase that winds to the summit. (As we shall see, it accommodates more than that in its thickness.) The outside is uniform and unbroken except for one small entrance. Those who took refuge inside could cut themselves off from the world, withstanding its assault.

The Shetlanders incline to believe that the brochs were built by the Picts, but we know virtually nothing about these people whom the Romans encountered over three hundred miles farther south, in Scotland proper, and we have no knowledge that they were ever in these islands.

The same local stones as were used so long ago to build the Broch of Mousa were used in recent times for shoulder-high stone walls in the vicinity of the broch, and for a crofter's house that is falling into ruin now that the island is no longer inhabited. Although these are modern structures, they are of the same construction as the broch.

Visiting the broch in broad daylight one would have no way of knowing that there was life inside the thickness of its wall, or inside the surrounding stone fences. Only by taking the wall apart could one find any evidence of it, but what one then found would be astonishing.

Although Storm Petrels are strictly nocturnal on their nesting grounds, there is no real night in Shetland in July. Instead of darkness there is a dusk that merges into dawn. The sun sets in the northwest about ten o'clock, but the sunset glow remains, moving along the northern horizon until, about four in the morning, now in the northeast, it becomes the sunrise. At the darkest hour, about one, some stars are visible and one can see (as we did on Mousa) a satellite passing north-to-south across the sky. But one could read a book by the light that remains, and the activity of birds is never stilled. All night the gulls and skuas, reduced to silhouettes against the sky, pass overhead crying. All night the Fulmars sweep along the shores or, crossing the island, rise and dip over the contours of its hills.

We had arranged for a boatman to take us to the island at ten in the evening of July 13, 1968, and to come for us again at eight the next morning. The sky was clear of clouds all night and the next day. We walked across the moors from our landing-place, and it was eleven o'clock, with the dusk thickening, when we came to the first of the high stone walls in the vicinity of the broch. Here a low sound pervaded the atmosphere, a continuous and invariable sound that one would say was produced by some small clockwork device with whirring wheels. It was intermediate between the purring of a cat and the softest snoring, all on one pitch but interrupted with perfect regularity, every two or three seconds, by an indescribable single note. One had the impression that it came from a distance until, trying to locate it, one found that, in fact, its source was inside the stone wall only inches away. I could not believe that a bird was inside, producing such a sound. Perhaps an insect, or a small frog.

Mated Storm Petrels relieve each other at the nest every two or, sometimes, three days, the relieved bird spending its leave at sea while the other sits in confinement. We were told that, because they are reluctant to come to land except under cover of true darkness, on cloudless nights at this latitude there are fewer exchanges than usual at the nests. Even well after midnight there was still no sign of such activity. At 12:20, however, standing by a broken-down part of a stone wall from which the buzzing came, we had the impression of a small bird darting into it. A moment later we thought we saw one darting out again (it might have been a Wheatear), and the sound had stopped.

At 12:53, standing by the broch, suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by darting and fluttering shapes. All around the tower, at this darkest hour of the night, was a swarm of what might have been bats — but perfectly silent, with not even a sound from their wings when they almost grazed us. It was hard to make out the features of any individual, since one's eye could hardly follow, in such deep twilight and so near at hand, the swift erratic course of a single bird. They moved for the most part close to the wall, up or down as much as horizontally.

With thousands of undifferentiated chinks between stones, it would be a wonder if any bird could find the one that led to its own nest. Here the utility of the continuous snoring signal became apparent. Some birds seemed to find the right opening at once, whereupon they would quickly squeeze themselves through it, disappearing into the wall. Others were obviously having a hard time. They would flutter vertically up and down the wall, trying to insert themselves into openings that were too small. Sometimes one would, in its flight, swing like a pendulum back and forth along the wall.

One was trying endlessly to find a way into the wall at a place, about three feet above the ground, from which the snoring came. It would cling vertically to the wall with its feet, its wings open and fluttering from moment to moment, its tail spread and the white rump conspicuous, trying to force its head into little openings. One of our party put his hand over it and plucked it from the wall. It was gentle in the hand as we felt the soft depths of its feathered blackness, as we examined the black wires of its feet and the delicately polished black bill — the compound bill, in miniature, of all its order, of the great albatross itself, with an open tube on top. Its jet eye, looking upon us, seemed gentle and indifferent. Released, it darted away, but soon was back, engaged in what seemed a frantic and fruitless search of an area two or three feet square; while, from inside, the mechanical whirring went on without variation. The bird would go away and return to resume the search, which must have continued at least a quarter hour. At last, however, it squeezed itself through an opening and was gone.

Here and there a bird would dart from the wall, always away in a straight line so that there was hardly time to see it. Within minutes of its relief and release it was, one supposes, far out over the open ocean.

The silent swirling of birds all about us continued for over an hour, but now it was getting lighter and the numbers were diminishing. By 2:15 the changing of the guard at the Broch of Mousa was over. Now one would never guess that inside this stone wall was life, that hearts were beating in there. Even the whirring watchworks had stopped.

After we had climbed a hill to see the sunset blossom again, now as sunrise, we returned over the moors to the broch. There it stood in the flooding new light, a monument for tourists, like the Castle of Edinburgh, if it had been accessible to them. One could imagine the official guide, with his patter about the ways of Picts and the features of their architecture, leading his flock through it. The chattering sightseers, and the silent but breathing life hidden in the stone, would still be as far apart as if the former had been in their home towns, the latter skimming the troughs of the mid-Atlantic. Implausible ghosts of reality from an alien world would be listening to tourists, inches away, who could have no inkling of their presence. In the full and disenchanting daylight, however, it was no longer credible that there was a whole strange world of birds inside this dead and silent wall.

Nevertheless, we pursued a certain investigation we had planned. Near the broch, at two separate points where time had crumbled down a stone wall to less than two feet high, we had the previous evening heard the snoring signal. Now, at the first of these points, we lifted off one stone after another until we could see, in a dark recess at ground level, a white egg on a circular bed of grasses. It seemed too large for the egg of so small a bird, and there was no room in the recess, as far as we could see, for a parent bird to be hiding. Touching the egg, however, we found it warm.

Then, while I was setting up tripod and camera for a photographic record, a faint clucking-clicking sound made me turn my eyes to the recess, where a Storm Petrel, a couple of feet from my face, was moving out of nowhere to cover the egg. It settled down and sat watching me.

At the other point along the wall, when the last stone was lifted from over its head, the sitting bird remained on its one large egg, which could be seen under its tail.

After photography we rebuilt the wall over the two sitting birds, each of which remained apparently undisturbed as we posed the stones over it. We belonged to an incomprehensible outer world that they could hardly recognize.

Storm Petrels, by contrast with swallows, know as little of us men as we know of Storm Petrels, by contrast with our knowledge of swallows. I was struck by the fact that they made no move to defend themselves, as other birds do. Even the one we held in our hands did not bite our fingers, and there was no threatening gesture like opening the bill. A larger relative, the Fulmar, which roosts on commanding positions all over Shetland, opens wide its bill to eject a malodorous orange fluid in the direction of any intruder. Storm Petrels, according to the literature, should do likewise, but these did not.

Another observation was of the cleanness of the two nests. We saw little trace of droppings such as one finds in the nests of other species. Since nesting Storm Petrels may go for days without food, even the nestlings, it may be that there is not the same problem of fouling their nests.

The sense of mystery in man is, in the first instance, only an expression of his own ignorance; but secondarily it may be the expression of how great, beyond human comprehension, the world is. Most of us are so preoccupied with our own immediate lives and surroundings that, especially if we live only in cities, we are unaware of all the time and space beyond. There are urgent and wholly absorbing questions of politics, of economic production and trade, of social strife. Philosophers who could well have been born in the cafes of Paris, where they spend their lives, proclaim the doctrine that the world is man's world, that he is the sole creator of any order in it. They can see that this is so by simply looking about them, just as the bee that remains in the hive can, by looking about, see that what it inhabits is a bee-made world.

The Storm Petrel knows our human world only incidentally and along its outermost fringes. In the wide oceans by day and night it sometimes sees a ship passing and follows it, as it would follow a whale, for what it finds in its wake; or it sees an airplane crossing from horizon to horizon; but I would guess that it attaches as little importance to them as the philosopher does to the world outside the city. It knows nothing about man's creation of the world. In its view, the land areas of the earth, on which man works his will, constitute mere rim for the one great ocean that envelops the globe. Even where the birds of Mousa nest, skuas must seem more important than men.

Nevertheless, there is an association, however tenuous. Thousands of years ago, men whom the Parisian philosopher must acknowledge as his forerunners built the abandoned bastion in which these insignificant creatures of the wild continue secretly, year after year, to bring forth their new generations, before they return to the untrodden ocean that, if they were philosophers, they would proclaim as the one and only reality.



If the Storm Petrel is the least conspicuous of the birds that nest in Shetland, its relative the Fulmar is the most conspicuous. One of the medium-sized members of the order Procellariiformes, it is, loosely speaking, a small albatross — and that is what it looks like.

Guides to bird-identification say that, superficially, it is like a gull. The word "superficially" should be emphasized, however, because it is quite unlike a gull to the eye of any practiced observer. As a flying machine, especially, it belongs to an altogether different category. It is a projectile rather than a parachute, adapted to swift rather than drifting flight.

The wings of most large birds, although they must be capable of flapping, are also designed for sailing on the wind, letting it do the work. In sailing flight, the greater the air-speed the less wing-surface is needed or desirable. The Fulmar, by this test, is a bird for high winds. Like albatrosses, and like airplanes designed primarily for speed, it has wings that, by their narrowness, have a proportionately smaller surface than those, for example, of gulls. Fulmars are not at all adapted to floating on offshore breezes, as gulls are, but they ride with ease the roaring storms of mid-ocean, storms in which gulls, with wings half folded, would still be buffeted and tossed. The range and rate of their travels, which may take them right across the Atlantic, depend on steady gale-winds deflected upward from the running combers that mount with the lapse of time and the extension of the wind's reach. Like witches on broomsticks, the Fulmars ride the tempest back and forth across the oceans, but are relatively confined when the weather is what gulls or men would call good.


Excerpted from The Storm Petrel and the Owl of Athena by Louis J. Halle. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. iii
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. xi
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • I. From Another World, pg. 11
  • II. The Fulmar Flying Free, pg. 21
  • III. Of Gulls and Men, pg. 41
  • IV. Birds that Attack Men, pg. 53
  • V. The Great Auk, the Little Auk, and Man, pg. 69
  • VI. Seagoing Sandpipers and Some Relatives, pg. 81
  • VII. The Gannet and the Ancient Shag, pg. 93
  • VIII. Birds of the Past and Birds of the Future, pg. 105
  • Epilogue, pg. 122
  • The Water Rail, pg. 139
  • The Marsh Terns, pg. 165
  • Scene: Geneva; Time: A Morning in June, pg. 173
  • Alpine Choughs in a Valley, pg. 179
  • The Concept of Species, pg. 183
  • The Refugee Species, pg. 189
  • The Parish of America, pg. 201
  • Hudson's Pampas Today, pg. 207
  • On Rereading Green Mansions, pg. 222
  • The Owl of Athena, pg. 229
  • Epilogue: The Religion of Sedge, pg. 248
  • Bibliography, pg. 257
  • List of Species and Index, pg. 259

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