Bird cliffs are wonderful things. Home to thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of birds living in close proximity to one another, they are a cacophony of noise and a maelstrom of action. On the cliffs birds mate, lay their eggs, raise and feed their young, and fight off predators. All life – and sometimes death, too – is here.
And then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of having a poo.
We all know that when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. And we also know it’s best not to mess in your own back yard. But how does the fastidious bird cope with this, without leaving – and therefore possibly losing – its favourite spot on the crowded cliff? During our visit to Sumburgh Head on Shetland we were pleased to see a puffin demonstrate how it’s done.
We’d been watching the bird for a while. It was standing motionless on scrubby grass close to the cliff edge, staring out at the ocean as if deep in thought. Finally, it seemed, the puffin reached a decision.
The bird shuffled around until its head was facing inland and its tail out to sea. It then engaged reverse gear and inched gingerly backwards. At last, teetering on the very edge of the cliff, just inches from disaster, it dipped its head, raised its backside into the air and casually did the business.
Except for its bill a puffin’s face is unmoveable, an inscrutable mask. But I’m sure I could detect in that bird’s eye a mischievous twinkle, the barest hint of smug satisfaction. I swear the puffin was quietly rejoicing in a job well done as it waddled away from the cliff edge, turned and resumed its previous position to stare serenely out to sea.
It was a fine performance, and Mrs P’s photo captures for posterity the exact moment when the foul deed was done. But spare a thought, if you will, for the poor fulmars and guillemots nesting on the cliffs below without a care in the world, unaware that just a second or two later they’d be showered in puffin poo, courtesy of the upstairs neighbour from hell.