Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Death in the alley

Outside the hotel in Tromsø, seagulls were crying through the grey, rainy, light night. As I left for the meeting in the morning I passed one standing in a narrow alley, yelling short, penetrating warnings at me. I walked quickly past, but not so quickly I didn't notice the dead chick, a grey ball of feathers on the asphalt next to the large white gull. As I had passed the seagull I was suddenly attacked, something bumping into my head from behind. Turning, I saw the large gull land next to the dead chick.

Later that day, as I returned, the adult gull was still in the alley, still guarding the miserable little corpse. I walked past, quickly, expecting another attack, but nothing happened, only the sharp, painfully penetrating screams from the orange beak. Later that evening, the dead chick and the mother were still there. And as I returned past midnight, the grey rainheavy sky as bright as it had been at midday. Through the night I heard the gulls, complaining, threatening, arguing. The characteristic, short screeches of the gull in the alley were unmistakeable, a very different sort of warning from the calls of the others. As I left, 24 hours after I had encountered that miniature tragedy for the first time, the seagull was still there, guarding the body of its dead chick.

I have no idea why the chick fell. Perhaps the nest was perched at a dangerous spot, and it just dropped out, helped even by a gust of wind. Perhaps another seagull had raided it, and this was the only chick the distraught parent could find. Some cruel human might have cleaned a windowsill of nest materials and chicks, this one falling to the pavement, a rat might have climbed the roofs... the options are many. But some things were obvious. The adult bird was protecting the little dead body. It was in distress. It was not going to abandon its responsibility. Nothing was more important than to protect this little, dead bundle of fluff. No creature was to large to attack in the line of duty.

Do the annoying, noisy, stinking seagulls have feelings? I have no idea. But the little tragedy in that alley in Tromsø managed to make me choose a different route after the first couple of encounters. I don't think out of fear, but perhaps, from some kind of odd respect for what I interpreted as grief and a desperate need to protect your children. Perhaps what I avoided was my own fear of standing like that over my children.

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