Before the great auk was killed off a century and a half ago it made a last stand on a flat, treeless chunk of granite called Funk Island, 40 miles off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. In the opening chapters of The Secret Islands (Norton, $5.95) Franklin Russell, a naturalist, tells how he suddenly became fed up with city life and drove north on an impulse to investigate the birds of the offshore islands—and the stage seems set for another of the now-familiar conservation studies on the way a species was wiped out. Not so, however; the author is concerned with the living, and in little more than two days' travel from Manhattan he found on such little-known places as Flowers Island, Great Island, Gull Island and Kent Island environments as strange as the ancient home of the auk.
Russell summons up a world of good-natured, iron-willed fishermen sailing their small boats among rolling icebergs, people who needed a lifetime of experience to be able to land him on the desolate islands he explored. (One chapter, At Witless Bay, appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 26, 1965.) He found Bonaventure, where the gannets are pushing their nests into the forest above the cliffs, killing the trees; Flowers Island, harboring some 50,000 eider ducks; Kent, the largest herring-gull colony in North America; Great Island, which is honeycombed with the burrows of the largest colony of puffins to be found anywhere, awkward, waddling birds that nest in tunnels dug with their clawed paddle feet.
The Newfoundlanders regarded Funk Island with respect, if not with fear, and Russell seems to have gotten along with the natives as well as he did because of his determination to go there. He paints a Dorélike picture of an avian hell. After the disappearance of the auks, Funk was taken over by murres—prolific, wasteful, black-and-white birds. More than a million are now crowded on the island's few acres. "The air streamed with birds coming at me. I threw up my hands, shouted at them, but the shout was lost, ineffectual, not causing a single bird to swerve or otherwise acknowledge me." This was not sentimental bird watching, by any means. The Secret Islands is memorable for half a hundred such unsparing glimpses of the world of birds.
Scenes of the human life of the islands are less successful. They have a forced, nervous quality, as if the author desperately tried to find something engaging in the hard lives of the people he admired. The result is touching, but one wishes the author's graphic power could be devoted to environments a little less taxing for him.