Visiting a colony of seabirds in summer is an assault on the senses. Noisy, crowded and smelly, the air above quivers with wings as birds return from the sea to feed their chicks and depart, the ground below filled with birds preening, calling, showing off and bickering on the territory.
These colonies are one of Britain’s most beloved examples of biological abundance: cliffs full of razorbills and guillemots, offshore rocks bleached by gannets and their guano, islands dotted with terns, grassy headlands riddled with nesting puffin burrows. Deserted in winter when birds live in the open sea, the sudden transformation of cliffs and coastal islands into a profusion of life is one of our most exciting seasonal miracles.
I’ve spent enough time at large colonies of seabirds to know that visiting them isn’t just a sensory experience; it can be deeply emotional. Their inhabitants seem oddly tame, challenging our assumption that wild animals always view humans with fear (despite our proximity, nesting seabirds can be very stressed by it). Above all, there is a poignant joy in standing in the midst of so many living creatures. I had almost forgotten the swarms of wasps in the gardens of my childhood, the dark flocks of smoke from winter lapwings, the clouds of butterflies on the edges of farmland – but after returning from a month on the remote atoll of Midway in the Pacific, where two million albatrosses and petrels nest among the ruins of an American naval station, I remembered them all and spent weeks mourning the relatively empty silence of the woods and fields of Britain today.
Seabirds are various creatures and we recruited them to symbolize many things. Seagulls are a surrogate for social anxieties: Reviled as invading thugs in the tabloid press, their crime appears to be little more than failing to treat humans and human spaces with due respect. Other seabirds, like penguins and puffins, fall into the anthropomorphized category of cute little guys, Instagrammable birds. cute. And ocean specialists like shearwaters and petrels spend so much of their lives at sea, visiting their nesting burrows in the dark, that they hardly seem part of our world: the Other rendered feathery.
[ See also: Dead birds falling from the sky is a bad omen for the planet ]
But in my lifetime, seabirds symbolized one thing above all else: pollution. New photographs of guillemots coated in a thick layer of crude oil horrified me when I was young; their sticky silhouettes are still etched in my brain. Stranded on the coast after oil spills, people have flocked to help. After the Torrey Canyon disaster, when an oil tanker ran aground off the west coast of Cornwall in 1967, thousands of guillemots were rescued and smeared with detergent. At the time, our understanding of how to deal with oiled birds was in its infancy: survival rates were so low that the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust eventually suggested that the best course of action would be to humanely kill badly oiled rather than trying to rehabilitate them. But the urge to help was real, and these doomed birds stimulated a vivid and lasting environmental consciousness in many.
This summer, photographs of dead and dying seabirds are back in the news. This time we cannot try to save them. Pollution is not the culprit, but we are equally responsible for their death. A virulent strain of bird flu that originated in poultry farms has spread to wild birds, particularly affecting seabirds, waterfowl and raptors. It wiped out colonies from Scotland to the east coast of the United States and it continues to spread. Corpses of gannets slumped in the waves, guillemots stretched out on the beaches, entire nurseries of terns wiped out in a few weeks. The once thriving colonies are now empty and silent.
Content from our partners
Colonial nesting has many advantages, but their compact nature means disease can spread through them like wildfire. Britain has internationally important populations of seabirds – around eight million in total – and some species are directly at risk from this outbreak. Scotland has around 60% of the world’s population of great skuas, for example, and hundreds have already died.
The powerlessness to witness this avian pandemic rings with the powerlessness to watch another wave of Covid hit the UK: hospitalization rates have tripled here since late May. I had avoided Covid until I came across it a month ago, spending a week in bed and a fortnight so exhausted I could barely muster the energy to move. Despite rising infection rates, masks are in short supply on our main streets, and we mostly live as if Covid is over.
Both pandemics originated from the interaction of wild animals with human food chains. Covid was a consequence of the disruption of ancient natural ecosystems; this form of bird flu originated in industrial poultry farms infecting mobile wild birds. Experts on both pandemics are concerned about the lack of a cohesive response to match the current reality – in the case of bird flu, the RSPB has called for increased surveillance and testing, and the disposal of carcasses which easily infect scavenger birds such as gulls. .
Photographs of dying seabirds today are not only reminiscent of those old images of oiled guillemots, but also compel recognition of the differences between them. Oil slicks are horrific and devastating events, but they are discrete, not global disasters. They first struck the public consciousness at a time when the world’s systems still seemed stable and eternal. Currently, these systems do not. We recognize the reality of large-scale climate breakdown and ecological devastation, and in the face of such vast terrors, it is difficult to invoke the sense of hope and action of the kind that animated those early lifesavers. oiled seabirds. But in the face of all that is, we owe it to the world and to ourselves to try.
[ See also: In northern Italy, the sound of the swirling river suffuses even my hotel room ]