Great and Lesser Birds, Great and Lesser Deaths

by Alex Lockwood

On the half hour walk between our cottage and the seabird sanctuary at the far northeast tip of the island, Luis would spontaneously stop and educate us on the flowers growing along the scruff of verge. The torrentil: a tiny yellow thing with five petals around the stamen, which could be chewed as remedy for a poor stomach. And ophrys apifera: the orchid which has evolved bee-like flowers from which it gets its name, drawing in its pollinating mate with the promise of love. Flowering lives among grass awed Luis (said ‘Lewis’) and thus us too. Long-haired and always with a guitar slung over his shoulder like a bandolier, Luis was in exile from a failed love affair back in Andalusia, but was anyway more taken with British shrubby cinque foil and silver weed, and afternoons, once the sanctuary closed, swimming in cold black inland pools overlooking the Irish sea.

Luis came each summer to this seabird sanctuary on Rathlin Island as volunteer coordinator, to shape and arrange us in taking care of the tourists and birders, children and grandparents. He was good with flowers and people, but Luis set his eyes to the birds, too. His gaze sharpened to spot the stars of this stage without the need for telescope or binoculars. He knew when the last puffin had truly gone out to sea, toward the end of August. And he taught me to spot the young peregrine sitting two hundred yards up and away along a selvedge of rock, peering over the inlet. The petrol blue, nervy hunchback cuffed into a hole or sat on a ledge was almost impossible to spot. Luis offered the binoculars and pointed me towards him. Seek, scan, and then: yes! There he sat, the adolescent falcon, looking down on the scallop of seaworn courtyard that was, during the summer months, its main source of hoped-for prey: the guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars who called this shelter home, in their thousands.

In April 1852, while fishing from the bank of a river, Henry David Thoreau spotted a hawk too, “soaring like a ripple and tumbling like a rod.” It reminded Thoreau of nobleness and poetry. “It appeared to have no companion in the universe—sporting there alone—and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely but made all the earth lonely below it.” My peregrine sat in similar fashion. It was a tiercel, not yet one year old, born to a pair who bred in a scrape a few coves over. The peregrines were well known at the sanctuary, which must have provided the falcons and their offspring with plenty of flesh. Despite their migratory nature (the name peregrine comes from ‘to wander’) this family had been on the island for a decade, although many chicks had flown off to the mainland and other islands. (On a clear day you can see the whisky distillery on Islay.) The chicks did not survive every year. The threat was no longer pesticides and DDT—where peregrines would “die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” as J. A. Baker wrote in his 1967 classic The Peregrine. Now the threat was about learning how to hunt. Its prey—the seabird chicks—were suffering a shortage of food, and falling in numbers. The sanctuary was, to uninitiated visitors like myself, a mesmerising cacophony of feather and guano and hullabaloo. But to those who counted each year, the birds were fewer and fewer.

I’d volunteered that summer in my desire to come closer to birds. I’d grown up an urban child. I had been kept out of the rain, a life spent in flats on suburban streets. I was not a child of nature, did not run free in woods. I knew no names of trees nor, despite studying Latin, the genus of avian worlds. I grew up into an intellectual with publications and a library, but did not know how paper was milled. I’d never got lost in a forest. I knew no origins of myths or fairy tales. As an adult I’d come to understand that my anxious “getting-on” and city-based social habits were not what I wanted nor needed. A catarrh was caked around my senses. It was a grime of comfort, and the only cleanser would be woodland scent and bog and mud, the scrape of screech and wipe of howl. So I hoped. The promise of nature is that it takes a pickaxe to the body cast in that constricting plaster (of London, or Paris…). Yet the soil inside is still fertile. So dig. Grow things: passions, practices, loves.

I’d not grown up understanding my responsibilities to the animate world. But I was not without hope for learning. Baker himself said, “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.” Birds, I learnt, are unequalled in their ability to bring us swiftly to grace. “They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us,” writes Baker. “Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach.” I wanted to reach out a hand and feel the feathers as they beat by, hoped the birds could teach me something. And perhaps we are more like them than Baker gives them credit. “They race to oblivion,” he says. Remembering Rachel Carson’s “heedless pace of man,” so do we.

I came for the birds. Many did. The other volunteers were bird watchers and nature lovers, zoology students looking for credits, men in their fifties having found a peculiar way to get some rest from “the family” and who taught us about The Troubles of Northern Ireland, the intricate cabals even in a community as small as this one (a hundred island residents); the cemetery walls set ten foot down to separate factions even after death. Then there were the visitors: day trippers and canoeists, families with fascinated and apathetic children in equal measure. There was the German couple in their mid-twenties, perfect skin and blond hair, despondent until they spotted some late-leaving puffins, who stayed five hours and danced like children watching these most charismatic of birds spin their wide gyres with palpitating wings and streaks of rainbows for beaks. And once, even, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and entourage, the sea vistas making a bright photo op to the darker backdrop of politics.

The sanctuary was not a fully hands-on experience. We came close to the birds but we did not get our overalls dirty, ringing legs or clearing habitat. That work happened at the other end of the island. There, conservationists took care of a rare family of choughs—blackbird-like corvids with a bright orangey-red beak, who do indeed sing chough, chough, chough as they torpedo by. On this sanctuary, the inhabitants—like all wild birds—were protected by law but not aided by hand. And yet I felt immersed in their lives, and in the quieter moments (before the first minibus of people arrived and the last had left) I had time to stand and watch life happen—which meant also to watch the happenstance of death.

It was not the peregrine who delivered my first moment to witness an act of predation. We were all prepared, with a macabre sense of the inevitable, for the peregrine to dive and catch its prey. But during those weeks either he never quite managed, or I didn’t see it. I caught once his attempt and then abort at a wishful effort—even a fledgling peregrine’s dive is an act of awful vertical specificity. It was, instead, the prosaic but more successful predators that instituted the quick deaths. The gulls.

Lesser and great black-backed laridae flew in and sat in their stately arrogance on the rocks and grassy hillocks. Huge birds in comparison to everything else, bar the gannets further out, following the fishing boats or spotting a shoal of mackerel and folding themselves into bolts of white lightning to spear the water. Angry guillemot parents, if they gathered in gang, could scare off the gulls. But there were too many lapses in the everyday struggle for food, too many hours the nesting pair had to be out fishing for them to keep constant watch on their curious growing chicks.
The timing so happened that I was, one slow afternoon, scanning lazily through bins when a guillemot chick emerged from its nest and a gull caught it by its short neck. The gull shook it around—not enough to kill—and ate it alive and whole. I was transfixed. Alive. It would suffocate sooner than be digested. But that was all I imagined. This verity of hunting left me void of thought—there was nothing poetic or tragic in the chick’s fate, merely a blank, deadpan natural knowledge best, or at least better, accounted for by physics: the conversion of energy from one form into another.

I had helped nurture a gull chick earlier that summer. My writing garret looks over the roof of the ground floor car park of an office block. This corrugated inner sanctum, not so much edgeland as scrapsquare, is home to air conditioning outlets and incongruous metal sheds, outrageously proud buddleia and wild grasses nestled into brickwork, a family of pigeons, and a pair of black-backed gulls and their mottled chick. They nested on a high perch at the very top of the wall. The chick tumbled one day down to the car park roof on its first fledge. There it sat with semi-useless wings, and I did not know if it had been lost or abandoned. Its high pitched sweeee was constant and insatiable, so I fed it scraps: bites of nectarine and slices of banana. I bought a bag of frozen prawns and hurled these out into the arena. I watched the fledgling learn that this was food (I automatically saw him as ‘he’) and, slowly, carefully, looking first around and then above him, edge towards the meal, and swallow chunks whole. I wondered whether gulls could eat bananas—fearing the potassium might explode in his gut like Alka Seltzer—but then realized, with how gulls now survive, this was probably the healthiest eating chick in all of urban Britain.

I need not have worried. After a day of interrupted and woeful writing I saw a parent return. The chick fenced at the beak for food. The parent moved around trying to find space, in which it regurgitated its meal. The chick gobbled up the grey maw, returned to battering its parent’s beak. But the full grown gull was off again, searching for human food waste to guzzle down, and the chick, sweeeeing, flapped its wings and attempted a take off before settling in the centre of the square. The pigeons kept their distance.
When I saw the black-backed gull on Rathlin Island swallow the guillemot chick, I thought back to this young gull I’d nurtured those weeks before. How over the next few days its parents came back with more food; how he learnt to fly; how he left his nest to forage; how he might live for fifteen years; how his parents, mated for life, might return to this spot again to nest, while he would seek out his own mate, spend his life at sea, go to Europe, and raise his own chicks, seeking out a life in some sprawling urban future. The swallowed guillemot chick was simply a more natural diet for this cause: life.

These were the quick deaths. There were also the slow. And of the slow, there were those we knew about but did not see, and those we bore witness to every day.

The invisible deaths were not noted through our binoculars but could still be measured. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills spend most of their year at sea, bobbing on the water and diving for their prey, such as sandeel. But due to a rise in ocean temperatures caused by climate change, and overfishing, food sources have declined or moved on. The birds often starve to death, scrawny puffin bodies washing up on shores in their thousands. The Atlantic puffin is now at threat of disappearing completely from European waters. But what news is this? One in five European birds is at similar threat, including another of the residents on the sanctuary.

The fulmar is a graceful seabird. A member of the procellariidae family, related to petrels and albatrosses, it does not have angled wings like the kittiwake or herring but rather stretches out its stiffened wingspan like the yardstick my granddad kept handy for rapping the table to keep us quiet. The fulmar circles effortlessly along cliff faces like a silent glimmer. It nests on edges and lays one egg. It can live for up to forty years. One pair had nested right by our lookout point, ten or fifteen feet from the guardrail. It was so close we could see it in bright detail, but far enough away for it to be unreachable. We watched the chick—almost ready to fledge—wait for its parents to return. But in all the time we watched they returned only once. Slowly the chick wasted away, and I mistook the curve of its long tube nose for a stoic smile. I wanted to throw it some sandwich, a bite of fruit. But Luis, ever the more experienced steward, knew this would be of no use. Without at least one parent, the chick had no chance of learning what it needed to survive. So we watched it die.

As I move from urban to natural worlds for my own survival, the gull, much more versatile and adaptable than the puffin or fulmar but no less a vulnerable chick or diligent parent, has come the other way. We meet, dance around each other. Yet the gull has trodden on too many toes. It is not a welcome migrant to our cities. This, despite all we have done to encourage it in. The “aggressive” herring gulls of Hastings and St. Ives, the “threatening” black-backeds of Brighton and Hove, have caused public outcry. The gulls are ruining our holidays! (A bit like the migrants ruining British package deals on Kos?) The gulls are stealing our ice creams! (No one seems to be concerned for who we stole that cream from in the first place.) This has led the protector of wild life, Natural England, to offer “death licences” for the culling of lesser black-backed gulls, and the destruction of herring gull nests. Not, they say, simply where gulls cause a nuisance or damage property, but where there is a threat to public health and safety. You do not need to apply for this licence, but simply meet its conditions. Who will police these culls? Who will claim unpoetic licence to define “public safety”?

Our common understanding of the “cull” is very modern. In relation to the destruction of animals “deemed inferior” it goes back only to 1934. Before this, the word meant “to select, pick, gather the best things”—especially literary selections. There is also a meaning of the word that relates to a person as a “dupe, saphead or rogue”—from the old French coillon, meaning “testicle; worthless fellow, dolt,” to some, but also with less pejorative meaning. In other uses, the cull was merely gullible.

In her award-winning memoir that intertwines the death of her father with the training of a goshawk, and the histories of grief and falconry therein, Helen Macdonald has, like J.A Baker before her, written a love letter to one particular animal. Yet Macdonald dismisses out of hand Baker’s The Peregrine as a lesser book, one of no value, rubbish in fact. Perhaps this is because, typical of her book in laying claim to an outdated transcendentalism in the tradition of Walden, Macdonald’s goshawk is the “true” hawk and the peregrine is merely lesser. What would she make of the puffin, the guillemot, the gull, the pigeon? Macdonald treats the pheasants she hunts and the frozen day-old chicks, cast offs of the egg industry, that she feeds “Mabel,” as lesser birds also. Not worth her love, nor protective effort. She channels her industry into breaking the goshawk to human servitude, unwilding the very wild to be of service to her in her grief; a pet. Macdonald’s book claims that this is the only way we will protect nature: that we must come to know it closely, and so love it. But rather than go to nature, she brings it to herself. She claims it, owns it. What use is this when one’s love for nature keeps it tightly drawn to parochial and patriarchal human concerns, a proclamation of the value of what we define: that the hawk is nature; the pheasant raised as game is not nature. The peregrine is lesser nature. The frozen chick is not nature.

And the gull? That lives in the city? Is he nature? Or lesser?
The gullible boy seeking nature outside of the city? Is he?
Love for these “lesser” birds is no less important to how we respond to the crises we face than the peregrine or the gos. Most of us will never train a hawk. But all of us can turn to commoner birds in understanding our responsibilities toward animate life. The peregrine and goshawk capture the imagination of the great naturalists, but how we treat the gull is more likely to determine our future. And the fulmar, the frozen day-old chick? Birds surround us, are they any lesser for that? Did not we invite them in, often with coercion? As Baker knew well in his grail-like quest to know the peregrine, and the world in which it lives: “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”

Dr Alex Lockwood is a writer based in the North East of England. He has published widely on environmental issues and animal studies; in 2014 he guest-edited the ‘Men and Nature’ issue of Earthlines. He is a Winston Churchill Travel Fellow, and is writing a book on climate change and animal agriculture.