There is a layer of grime on my skin so thick I can scrape it off in long curls. On my pants, which I have been wearing for three days now, there are coffee and syrup stains, and the long gray and white streaks of gull feces. A few flecks of blood have dried to brown. The pants are a catalog of our two activities on this island: banding gulls, and eating. We do sleep, but not well and not long, given the heat and the cacophony of the gulls.
We are here on Appledore Island in Maine for one week to band gull chicks and to take blood and other unmentionable samples for a study at M.I.T. As of this morning, we had captured, banded and sampled over 400 birds.
This island is home to breeding colonies of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, and to a full field research station called the Shoals Marine Lab. Birds and undergraduates, PhD students, and high schoolers all manage to coexist here, though not entirely peacefully. Out in the colonies at the cliff verges on the Atlantic, you can get clocked in the head with concussive force for approaching a gull’s chicks too closely. We are always approaching too closely.
Nearer to campus, the gulls are more accustomed to human comings and goings, and are less wary and defensive. Some grow so habituated to humans that they acquire names. At least, human-given names. There is an old bird who stands on the porch of the dining commons most of every day. He has lost most of the feathers around his eyes, giving him a crazed aspect. The colors of his bill are faded and washed out, and the webs of his feet are shot through with holes. He was banded several years ago, and wears a green anklet reading A07. For his habit of stealing the food of unsuspecting porch diners, he has been called “Peanut Butter Cookie.”
Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee this morning before my departure for the mainland, I sat under the baleful glare of A07 and wondered if this might be the last time I ever see him. He has a mate again this year, and young, but he may not make it through another winter.
Yesterday, I was out tidepooling, picking up crabs and shrimp when I saw a green band rolling in the waves. It read H01, a bird banded a few years ago, and now, evidently, dead, its body decomposed and worried apart enough for the band to have fallen off the bone. For an unbanded bird, indistinguishable (by us) from any other bird, death is perfect oblivion, one more bird in millions who have lived, fledged, foraged, mated and died, unmarked and unremarked upon by humans. We knew a bit about H01, and slightly more about A07. Most birds have no name for us. Some few have a name in science, and fewer still a colloquial name. They all have a secret name, of course, or what passes for a name in their country and lets one bird know its mate and its enemies, its chicks or a stranger’s, at a far distance and among hundreds by its shape or its cry, its posture or its flight pattern. What they use for names, or rather, instead of names, is a pure and unsolvable mystery, species to species. Every year, we watch a short span and a thin sliver of their lives, another generation, until the young fledge and the adults move on, with no further apparent connection to their offspring. They each move off to their wintering grounds and their daily habits, one essentially identical to the next, at least to our eyes.
How little we know of the world.