Nesting Birds



"In front of us, largely free of the mist, was a perfectly flat field of bare rock, covered by a seething colony of ten or twenty thousand fully grown gannets, their white bodies forming what appeared to be an impossible covering of snow. They made a dreadful and insane noise, of barking and grumbling, formed from a restless and jostling sea of throats, most noticeable nearest to us, inflaming and vibrating as we stood to watch. The egg yolk coloration of their napes, by the thousand, gave the colony a sunset shine, as if it had managed to emit its own light.

‘I can’t move,’ Martin said, his boots placed awkwardly between the ragged territories of three nests.

‘Me neither,’ his brother replied, braving his fear. ‘What’s your orders, sir?’

The closest birds eyed us warily, falling from their nests and aiming at our legs as we passed. Their beaks opened wide and their throats were vivid with a bright pink anger. Their eyes were startlingly clear and empty.

‘They’s gutless, Marti,’ Connor decided, setting off at a healthy stride to kick out a path. The air seemed to rise around us, full of black-tipped scythes, as birds startled and took to the wing.

‘Hah! Hah!’ Martin shouted. ‘Off you go, bastards!’ The brothers began to enjoy the sport, giving heavy kicks to the gannets and swiftly pocketing eggs in canvas bags. I followed the path they created, as if we brought with us a rising wind, scattering the birds and causing a panic that spread far beyond.

‘Watch the gulls,’ I warned, noticing several glaucous gulls sitting among the gannets. They were large and ghostly white in plumage, and were considerably more vicious than the gannets.

They would wade towards us, hissing, their wings unhinged and their necks low and strained. The colony was overwhelming. There was such noise, such a squalor of smell and scrabbling and unpredictable pecking, that our nerves were very quickly shot through.

‘I’ll not stand much more o’ this, sir!’ Connor whined.

‘Me neither!’ I shouted, stopping abruptly, all three of us standing as one does in a crowd, shoulder to shoulder. The gannets closed around us, a flowing mass acting as water does, filling gaps and rising unstoppably. I felt engulfed by a sense of drowning, that somehow an acre of the ocean had risen to the top of this rock and we would soon be overrun. I stood, in awe of nature’s sheer abundance. Its noise. Its restless and unquenched activity.

‘Would either of you have any complaint if we climbed down again, as quickly as we might?’ I said. The brothers laughed, relieved.

‘We have us some eggs, anyhows,’ Martin said, immediately turning back.

‘Look at yous, Marti,’ his brother jeered. ‘Quick as a new bride on her weddin’ day!’

‘That I don’t mind. You’ll just be sitting down an’ makin’ friends with these winged bitches, eh?’

Connor prodded me with a finger. ‘Was a cry-baby, that one was.’

‘I heard that, Connor,’ his brother said, laughing. He kicked a gannet as hard as he could. ‘Whoa, that feels good!’ he shouted.

The sound of his voice suddenly lingered, unnaturally, as silence swept through the colony. It had arrived like a wave, rushing across the tops of the gannets. For a second not one of them made a noise. The birds looked up, as startled as we were, daunted by the absence of noise. It was as if the world had ended, a pause in which I felt I had a true and complete understanding of the infinite. A second later, with the resumption of the gannets’ endless moaning, the world began again, and this time the combined sound of the birds had the unmistakable tone of grief."


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