Mission of Mercy

Mission of Mercy

A routine jog leads to a chance encounter with an injured northern gannet--and a determined effort to set things right.

By Thomas Urquhart
Published: March-April 2013

O happy living things! no tongue / Their beauty might declare: / A spring of love gushed from my heart, / And I blessed them unaware.--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

"Wow! A gannet on the causeway? That's a great bird!" The comment was from one who leads birding expeditions the world over. I had just recounted my tale at a cocktail party, and now I basked in his enthusiasm.

Gannets are not a rarity in Maine. You can see them from the rocks of Two Lights State Park at the entrance to Casco Bay, generally something big and very white against the horizon over the Gulf of Maine. Or at sea in a fog, the black wingtips appearing disembodied before their owner emerges, a whiter shade of pale.

What had made my gannet "a great bird" was that I had seen it not in the open sea but so close to shore. To be precise, it was sitting on the side of the road that runs from suburban Falmouth a short distance out to a circle of mixed woods surrounded, when the tide is out, by mudflats.

I was jogging back after my morning turn around the island when I spotted it. Not white and splendid at all but forlorn and browny-gray: a juvenile, crouched under the guardrail, awkward and incongruous. With a middling tide, 10-plus feet of steep riprap separated the bird from the water, and it was a mystery how it had waddled up such a gradient.

The gannet hunkered down at my approach, waving a beak like a dagger, prepared to defend itself to the last. Although the bird was exhausted, I was not about to tangle with so formidable a weapon. Besides, with only my running togs, I was hardly equipped to apprehend a bird with a nearly six-foot wingspan. But that gray-blue stare: its command was the equal of the Ancient Mariner's, whose "glittering eye" famously held the Wedding-Guest in thrall. As soon as I had showered, I returned in the car, armed with a towel and a cardboard box. 

This time I saw the length of monofilament line emerging from the neck feathers, and when it opened its beak again the line twined around and around the lower mandible. Gently putting the towel over those considerable wings and wrapping them like a straitjacket, I installed the gannet in the box. 

But not before I had squatted down beside it just to wonder at the potential for magnificence in that still-speckled head. It returned my gaze with baleful resignation. Whatever it was making of me, I could scarcely believe my luck in this unexpected chance to be so intimate with a bird I had seen only in the air, and generally from afar. Since I have yet to visit those watery worlds where the albatross is at home, a gannet is the closest I have come to the great ocean wanderer. For me this one had all the archetypal mystery of Coleridge's "pious bird of good omen." 

In our Cartesian world, natural history of all the sciences is the most tolerant of metaphysics. And because its nature is to encourage unsought encounters, natural history most readily opens the door to that innate love of wild things that E.O. Wilson calls biophilia. It gracefully admits the poetic and the fellow feeling we find returned in the eyes of the species with which we share the land and air and water that surround us.

At least that is my excuse for tempering objective interest--the elegant niche in the food chain that gannets occupy, for instance--with a need to see in the bird and the whole happenstance of our meeting something personal. It's the least I can do by way of appreciation when the unusual falls in my lap. And the unusual--which rewards openness to surprise above dogged pursuit--seems to return my appreciation with serendipity galore, until the really unusual day is the one that can be said to be routine.

 

When I got back to the house, the bird had keeled over. For a moment I thought it had expired, but it took another feeble swipe at me as I freed it from the towel and set it on its feet. Before embarking on my mission of mercy, I had called a local wildlife rehabilitator, but without success. Now I tried again, and a man's voice answered.

"You want Dave Sparks." I knew him. He had on more than one occasion helped me with wildlife problems about the house, but these had been exclusively mammalian. Thinking of him in connection with a gannet took some adjusting.

"Dave'll take anything," said the man.

Sure enough, when I called David, he said to come right on over. Back in the car, the radio had just begun Brahms' Ssymphony No. 4 in E minor. Two giants beating each other was what one music critic heard when the composer played it for him on the piano. A century-plus later the tectonic flexing into which the full score plunges suggested a nobler struggle. Under the present circumstances, I was quite happy to equate it with the urge to live.

The symphony had got as far as the beginning of the scherzo when I turned onto a small road that wandered past several ranch houses before entering a wood. Up a small hill, around a bend, and down in a little dell lay a profusion of flowers and shrubs and trees, a perfect paradise of an English cottage garden. The ark-shaped mailbox read: Sparks Ark.

By the time I had taken the cardboard box and its precious contents (I was already dangerously possessive about "my" gannet) out of the car, David had joined me. He took one glance and went into the shed for some clippers. A rugged man of few words, he looks like an ex-cop and was, in fact, the town's former animal control officer in between stints as a full-time a wildlife rehabilitator. An assortment of animals--wild deer, domestic chickens, and turkeys of uncertain provenance--appeared to be thriving in various pens that ascended the woody hillside. 

I held the bird's head as firmly and as gently as I could while David began to untangle the monofilament. Large, chafed hands were suddenly purposeful, and surprisingly delicate as he operated. "He swallowed a hook," he said through teeth that were trying to keep the line taut enough to follow into the tangle without causing undue discomfort to the patient. I gulped; I've always had a dread of catching a bird on a fish-hook. "The hook's not the problem; he'll digest that eventually," he reassured me. "But the line. He couldn't feed with it wrapped around his beak like that, and he's managed to get it tied around his wing, too. But I can't see anything else the matter with him."

At this point, David's cell phone rang. Someone with a skunk in their crawl space or a raccoon in their eaves, I thought. He answered it, crooked the phone into his shoulder to make the arrangements, and kept on working on the gannet. "Now," he said, closing the cell, "I need you to cut the line as close to his gullet as you can."

He opened the beak, and I was confronted by a pink orifice in the lower bill that I can only describe as vaginal. "Is that the opening for the crop?" I asked, scrambling to remember my avian anatomy. "Nope, that's how he breathes," said David. "Now cut that line . . . there." And with that he picked up the dazed gannet and headed out across the field toward a broad river running along his property. 

"Right around here, the current's very slow and there's lots of fish. He'll start eating in an hour or so. Just needs to settle down. If he doesn't," he added, "I'll catch him again and feed him myself."

David walked to the end of his dock and gently lowered the bird into the water. It swam weakly in a circle looking apprehensive or just past caring. Then it shat, a white plume in the limpid water. "So he must have been eating something," David said.

 

As I drove off, Brahms was about two-thirds through the last movement. The eight-bar theme--borrowed from a Bach chorale--returned on heroic brasses, as if to say that all would be well. I hadn't been at Sparks Ark more than 15 minutes.

I waited until the next day to call for a progress report. Meanwhile, I wondered, scientific inquiry battling my tendency to anthropomorphize. How did a gannet find its way inshore to Mackworth Island? How did it come to swallow a hook? Had some fish taken it and escaped, only to find itself the target of one of those terrifying gannet dives that kick up spray as white and visible from afar as the bird itself? 

When I asked Blue Ocean Institutes's Carl Safina, he recalled a fisherman telling him he'd seen as many as 10 gannets a day dragged under after diving for the baitfish on a longline. "It bothered him a lot," Safina said, although he wasn't sure whether longlines pose as serious a threat to gannets as they do to some endangered albatrosses. 

On the plus side, the northern gannet's circumstances have been much improved by the legal protection of those standing-room-only seabird islands, where every species has its own shelf--based on height, width for the nest, and who knows what other considerations--that keeps each colony more or less together and separate. Nevertheless, North America has only six gannet breeding sites: three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and three on Newfoundland's Atlantic coast. 

Which meant my gannet had traveled at least a thousand miles from the island where it was born, a long way, surely, for a one-year-old.

When I called next morning, David said he'd had to recapture the bird. "It was weaker than I thought," he said, as if this were his fault. "Too weak to dive for fish. So it couldn't feed itself." He sounded confident, though, that a week or 10 days of hand-fed mackerel would have it back in tip-top form.

But I wasn't so sure. A spectral procession of the wounded wildlife I have tried to revive--the owl my wife hit with the car one night, the baby rabbit my daughter rescued from our cat, a host of fledglings that preferred death to my gifts of bread and milk--passed before my mind looking reproachful. My family has the veterinarian equivalent of a gardener's black thumb.

I wondered what David's success ratio was, undoing the work of some animal's close encounter of the human kind. Intervening in the wild, even to make amends, starts off with the cards stacked against it. We had taken the owl, at--only in England--half-past ten in the evening, to the local raptor home, but despite an optimistic prognosis, the bird never flew again. We reassured ourselves that its fate--full bed and board in a spacious aviary--would be happier than dying alone at the roadside. And rationalized the loss to the woods it could no longer inhabit, with the countless visiting children it would charm into their own feelings of biophilia. But was this not anthropocentric relativism?

The profit/loss equation seemed clearer with the baby rabbit. It would certainly have died; as a parent, I had hoped it wouldn't last the night, sparing us the anguish that in the same situation John Cheever exactly captured as "that noise that he lived in dread of above all others--his innocent and gentle children screaming in pain." But in the morning it was still alive, and so we took the poor thing to the Audubon Society, where a young woman explained to my daughter about the quality of mercy. And asked her permission to put the rabbit to sleep. If that baby rabbit had to die (and nature intends that most do lest they overrun their habitat), in doing so it taught my 11-year-old a lasting lesson, not only about ecology but also compassion. 

But with both owl and bunny, the profit was all on the human side. Once out of how many times does a wildlife rehabilitator get to see the patient fly or run off into the wild, whole again?

 

So I put off calling David again, lest he have unhappy news. Then, in the turmoil that is summer in Vacationland, I plain forgot. It was two weeks before I finally reached him. 

"Yep, he was fine," David said. "I force-fed him for a couple days, and he got his strength back. So I put him back in the river, and pretty soon he was catching all the fish he wanted. Then I took him down to Two Lights." 

My immediate reaction was disappointment that I had not been there, even irritation that David hadn't called and given me the opportunity to join him. I imagined the compact body stretching out as he held the gannet high above his head, its feet trapped by a stocky thumb.

In my mind, I was looking from below the edge of the rocks, up at a man in a battered work shirt. His step, as he moves forward, bounces on the springy turf causing the bird to struggle for its balance. It stretches its wings, making an isosceles triangle of the pair of them. The hand rises, is pulled higher by the hesitant wings, lifted by aerodynamics until they freeze in a heroic tableau, the man poised like some athlete from classical times. 

I have to rewind the mental tape, correct the image, because suddenly the bird in my head has turned the cream color of an adult gannet. Then there is a gust of wind off the sea. The wings beat, and David--as if coming to the end of a countdown--removes his thumb. The gannet takes to the air.

"I held him up, and he took right off. Just kept going. I never saw him land," David finished his story. And suddenly I wondered if actually being there could have been any more rewarding than listening to this straightforward tale over the phone. Being there would have imposed a mutual obligation to share the experience aloud, a conversation about the Wonders of Nature--maybe over-, maybe understated, but likely wanting in either case--all the way back to the parking lot. So much easier to think in terms of the birder's "good bird" than to try to explain the majesty behind that "glittering eye." 

Besides, it was David's skill and perseverance that had taken care of the bird. The thought of communion between bird and man floated in my brain until it was gradually replaced by the tremendous satisfaction that my luck in finding the gannet had been matched on the gannet's side by its luck in finding me.

A few weeks later, when I was sailing somewhat further Down East, a first-year bird, species Morus bassanus, flew across the bow. No logic or reason could quash my certainty as I recognized it as my gannet, now recovered, sweeping the seas. Nor, as it disappeared in the haze, that it had left me a valediction: Farewell, farewell! but this I tell / To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! / He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.

Magazine Category

Author Profile

Thomas Urquhart

Thomas Urquhart is the former director of Maine Audubon and author of For the Beauty of the Earth. He lives in Maine.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine