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29 January 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 2:55pm

The wild creatures that are our neighbours live far longer than we imagine

"The lives of birds are too rich to be to quiet madness in a pretty cage, thousands of miles from the forests of home."

By John Burnside

A still, silvery morning in Stromness. Having planned an afternoon’s bird-watching further up the coast, I’m taking things slowly with my companions for the outing (Orcadian composer Erland Cooper and his frequent collaborator, film-maker and musician Alex Kozobolis), relaxing into the subtle shifts that come when a body escapes the unseemly hubbub of modern life for something a little less toxic; until, suddenly, a gang of big, noisy whitemaa come swooping around us, swinging in then steering away at the last minute, yelping and laughing.

Whitemaa, it should be said, is the Orcadian term for herring gull, a fair-sized (up to 3.5kg in larger males) and rather pushy habitué of seafront towns that, because it is clever and fearless enough to swoop down and pluck a hot chip from an unwary tourist’s hand, has been classed, somewhat melodramatically, as “aggressive” by local councils and tourist organisations. (Though if you really want to see aggressive, head out to Hoy when the skuas are nesting.)

As it happens, “Whitemaa” is also the title of one of Cooper’s most beautiful works, a haunting piece for voices that suggests the other side of these birds’ lives, chained to the rhythms of the tide and weather, drifting in vast expanses of grey on days when humans eat their fish suppers indoors. As Cooper’s piece shows, it takes knowledge and attentiveness to find the real beauty in a thing. So, now, when Cooper observes that herring gulls can live for 40 or more years, and that some of these birds might well have seen him growing up here, on this narrow Stromness thoroughfare, I am reminded not only that many wild creatures live far longer than we imagine, but also that those who survive in our “built environment” are our neighbours.

Curious, sometimes kindly, occasionally inconvenient, they watch our lives unfold, possibly with more attention and solicitude than we observe their day-to-day tribulations. It seems to me that this is a valuable form of witness. So when I think of these Stromness gulls watching their human acquaintances come and go over decades, I am delighted, and rather moved. Suddenly they seem more companionable, more interesting – and, out of nowhere, I remember Maxwell, an African grey parrot that I tried in vain to befriend around three decades ago. Had it been human, this grumpy creature would have been old enough to draw a pension (a parrot’s year is considered the equivalent of 2.2 human ones), which seems fine until we think that, then aged around 40 in parrot years (allegedly, nobody really knew), Maxwell had a life expectancy of up to 30 more years.

This is OK if you are flying around a seaside town, scaring the bejesus out of the tourists; not so much fun, though, living in a cage, inside a conservatory, in a suburb whose greenery lies tantalisingly beyond a wall of metal bars and glass. Worse still, if you are an intelligent species (African greys are considered the Einsteins of the bird world, equal in intelligence to a bright four-year-old). I guess it all goes to show how casually we forget time in our dealings with the world around us. But surely, with more imagination and a pinch of fellow-feeling, we could begin to see that the lives of wild birds are too rich and varied to be reduced to simple designations like “aggressive”, or to quiet madness in a pretty cage, thousands of miles from the forests of home. 

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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out