In the video, the gannet is preening and flirting with what he believes is another bird—a potential mate, the possibility of love—but she is just molded concrete painted yellow and black and white like him. In fact, several concrete-birds surround Nigel, the only real bird around, and have been placed there by conservationists to attract more gannets back to their native Mana Island off the coast of New Zealand. The ruse failed: flocks of gannets arrived, intrigued by the façade of the concrete-birds and the familiar bird sounds playing over loud-speakers nestled beside rocks and underneath moss, but they quickly realized that they’d been duped and flew away, nobody’s fool. Except for Nigel. He cozied up to the concrete-bird, chose her (it? him?) as his mate, never left. And in January, he died.
I am not Nigel. Which is to say: I am not a bird. I am a human woman, cat-owner, afraid of flying. Birds strike me as other-worldly and archaic, their fragile, weightless bones mysterious, their angular faces difficult to see all at once. I like my animals warm and malleable. My cat sleeps under the blanket at night and sometimes I wake suddenly and forget he is there and kick him, accidentally and not that hard, and he doesn’t move. Birds, it seems to me, never stop moving.
After Nigel bonded with his concrete-bird, the conservationists regained hope of bringing more gannets to Mana Island. They added decoys, moved the speakers so that the bird cries would project over the sea, gave the concrete-birds a fresh coat of paint. And it worked. Within 10 days, three more birds had arrived and seemed like they were there to stay. Nigel finally had other real birds to keep him company. But he refused to interact with them. Nigel wouldn’t leave his concrete-soulmate.
My cat sits on the dresser and looks out the window into the backyard. When we first moved here, he’d pushed the blinds aside so that he could see squirrels and birds, or maybe it was the light that he liked most. He snapped a small hole in the slats and now he can look outside even when the blinds are down, like he’s looking through a telescope or at a small TV. Whenever my cat sees a bird, his body trembles and his teeth chatter, and he makes a sound that’s both whisper and scream. He can’t seem to help it. In the morning, the window is covered with condensation and it’s impossible to see through the glass. And yet my cat sits on the dresser, facing the window, waiting.
I have a problem with over-identification, believing I can relate to every experience, worldview, way-of-being even when it has nothing to do with me. It’s not empathy. It’s a search for myself in the world. I am trying to feel more solidly rooted, but still. Nigel stands in front of his concrete-bird and moves his head back and forth like he’s in conversation with her, and I recognize myself.
The researcher says that the saddest part of Nigel’s story is how frustrating it must have been to be courting the concrete-bird without rejection or encouragement. Nigel was stuck in limbo, attached to a mate who could not reciprocate or communicate, who could not even insist that he go away. I wonder if it’s possible that Nigel did not want to move forward or move on, if it wasn’t his delusion that kept him attached, but instead was the specificity of her, the fact that she was concrete, that kept him close. Maybe it was enough for Nigel.
On my way home from school, I drive by white birds dotted along the surface of the river. I remember living in an apartment on the ocean and watching pelicans dive into the water. Then, I was never alone: six roommates on a study abroad trip, constant company, anonymous on a foreign island. Am I lonely now? Sure. But not when I’m alone. It’s when the limits of my life, which are really the limits of my mind, are revealed by other people’s freedom. Like Nigel when the living birds landed. I forget that I’m free to move.
The researcher assumes Nigel was lonely with his concrete-bird. He says that the timing of Nigel’s death is tragic because it looked like his life was about to improve with the arrival of the other living birds, tragic because he missed out on the opportunity to know true connection. But Nigel built a nest for his concrete-love, groomed her, died next to her in their nest. If the researcher’s assumptions are correct—that Nigel was longing for something more—why didn’t Nigel fly away to find other gannets? Is attachment a choice? Nigel stayed because his love was more than attraction and affection: it was an unwavering belief in her existence.
My dating life is like loving a concrete-bird, I joke with a friend. The truth is that I’m freer than I’ve ever been. I go on a date and my friends ask what he’s like and I compare him to another person I know, someone I want to go on a date with but can’t. I’m not trying to be evasive. I don’t know how to speak about people separate from other people. I don’t know how to speak about myself that way either. I look at the nest that Nigel made for his love and I understand that sometimes flirting with a concrete-bird is the most satisfying way of feeling together.
The researchers are optimistic that Nigel helped save the gannet population on Mana Island. Because he remained with his concrete-bird, other gannets were persuaded to hang out, will hopefully stay and breed and repopulate the species. The researcher says that birds need to interact with each other in order to survive: when they’re communicating, there’s hope.
A single outdoor cat will kill 33 songbirds in a year. My cat has never hunted a bird because I do not let him outside. He doesn’t know life beyond the window. He sees the birds outside and it’s like he’s catching them, that watching them is precisely what catching is.
Perhaps it was the arrival of the living birds that broke Nigel’s spirit. Their presence on the island threatened his attachment to the concrete-bird, revealed that he’d never had the connection that he believed, showed him that there could be another way. In light of the living birds, his concrete-love suddenly became inadequate, reduced to rock instead of the realness he felt from her. Perhaps the presence of the living birds made Nigel feel the loneliest.
I do not know if Nigel died of a broken-heart. I am not a bird. But I wonder about the nature of attachment: what we need in order to survive, what’s good enough. Somewhere on Mana Island, Nigel’s bird sits surrounded by other gannets. I do not need to worry if she is lonely without Nigel, if she misses him or longs for another love, because she is stone, heavy and enduring. She will stay there, unmoving, as the speakers play recordings of bird-sounds on repeat, as researchers install more decoys, as flocks fly around her, unaware that she has called them home.
*Note: The title (and inspiration) for this piece comes from this article in the New York Times.
Anna Megdell received an MFA in Fiction from the University of Tennessee. Her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic.