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27 July 2022

Summer reflection: the silence of the seabirds

In my lifetime, seabirds have symbolised one thing above all: pollution.

By Helen Macdonald

Visiting a seabird colony in summer is a full-on assault on the senses. Loud, crowded and malodorous, the air above shivers with wings as birds return from the sea to feed their chicks and depart again, the ground beneath packed with birds preening, calling, displaying and squabbling over territory.

These colonies are one of Britain’s most beloved examples of biological abundance: cliffs full of razorbills and guillemots, offshore rocks whitened by gannets and their guano, islands dotted with terns, grassy headlands riddled with the burrows of nesting puffins. Deserted in winter while birds live on the open sea, the sudden transformation of coastal cliffs and islands into a profusion of life is one of our most thrilling seasonal miracles.

I’ve spent enough time in big seabird colonies to know that visiting them isn’t merely a sensory experience; it can be deeply emotional. Their inhabitants seem bizarrely tame, challenging our assumption that wild animals always view humans with fear (despite putting up with our proximity, nesting seabirds can be highly stressed by it). Most of all there’s a poignant joy in standing amid so many living creatures. I’d almost forgotten the swarms of wasps in childhood gardens, the smoke-dark unspooling flocks of winter lapwings, the clouds of butterflies on farmland verges – but after I returned from a month on remote Midway Atoll 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 grieving the comparatively empty silence of Britain’s woods and fields today.

Seabirds are various creatures and we’ve recruited them to symbolise many things. Gulls are a placeholder for social anxieties: reviled as invading thugs in the tabloid press, their crime seems little more than failing to treat humans and human spaces with due respect. Other seabirds, like penguins and puffins, fall into the anthropomorphised category of cute little guys, Instagrammable avian kawaii. And oceanic specialists like shearwaters and petrels spend so much of their lives at sea, visiting their nesting burrows in darkness, they seem barely part of our world at all: the Other rendered in feathers.

[ See also: Dead birds falling from the sky is a bad omen for the planet ]

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But in my lifetime, seabirds have symbolised one thing above all: pollution. News photographs of guillemots thickly coated in crude oil horrified me when I was young; their gluey silhouettes are still seared into my brain. Washed up on the coast after tanker spills, people flocked to help them. After the Torrey Canyon disaster, when an oil tanker ran aground off the western coast of Cornwall in 1967, thousands of guillemots were rescued and lathered with detergent. Back then our understanding of how to treat oiled birds was in its infancy: survival rates were so low the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust eventually suggested that the best way to proceed would be to humanely kill badly oiled birds rather than attempt to rehabilitate them. But the urge to help was real, and those doomed birds spurred in many a keen and long-lasting environmental consciousness.

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This summer, photographs of dead and dying seabirds are back in the news. This time, we can’t attempt to save them. Pollution isn’t the culprit, but we’re just as responsible for their deaths. A virulent strain of avian influenza that arose in poultry farms has spread to wild birds, hitting seabirds, waterbirds and raptors particularly hard. It has wiped out colonies from Scotland to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, and it continues to spread. Gannet corpses slumped in surf, guillemots sprawled on beaches, whole nurseries of terns wiped out in weeks. Once-thriving colonies are now empty and silent.

Colonial nesting brings many advantages, but their close-packed nature means that disease can spread through them like wildfire. Britain has internationally important seabird populations – around eight million in all – and some species are directly threatened by this outbreak. Scotland has around 60 per cent of the world’s population of great skuas, for example, and hundreds have already died.

The helplessness of witnessing this avian pandemic chimes with the helplessness of watching another wave of Covid hit the UK: hospitalisation rates have tripled here since the end of May. I’d avoided Covid until I came down with it a month ago, spending a week in bed and another fortnight so exhausted I could barely summon the energy to move. Despite rising infection rates, masks are a rare sight in our high streets, and we’re mostly living as if Covid is over.

Both pandemics arose from the interaction of wild animals with human food chains. Covid was a consequence of the disturbance of ancient natural ecosystems; this form of avian flu emerged from industrial poultry operations infecting wild, mobile birds. Experts on both pandemics are concerned by the lack of a coherent response to match the present reality – in the case of bird flu, the RSPB has called for increased surveillance and testing, and the disposal of carcasses that readily infect carrion-eating birds like gulls.

Photographs of today’s dying seabirds not only recall those old images of oiled guillemots, but also force a recognition of the differences between them. Oil slicks are horrifying, devastating events, but they are discrete disasters, not global ones. They first hit public consciousness at a time when the systems of the world still seemed stable and eternal. Right now those systems do not. We recognise the reality of climate breakdown and large-scale ecological devastation, and faced by such vast terrors, it’s hard to summon the sense of hope and agency of the kind that animated those early rescuers of 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 ]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special