The story of Nigel, a seabird who lived and died among concrete decoys on a rocky New Zealand island, flew around the world last week. It was widely received as a tragedy.
Here was a beautiful gannet bird who had been lured to a strange place by humans. In the face of solitude, he directed his mating instincts toward a false love interest: A painted decoy, still and stone-hearted, eternally oblivious to his wooing. Years passed, no other gannets arrived, and there Nigel died, alone in the nest, he built his cement princess.
But conservationists are not mourning his fate. Nigel, they say, was a hero among gannets – a tragic hero, maybe, but a hero nonetheless.
“He was a pioneering spirit,” said Stephen Kress, vice president of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society. “Was he a brave pioneer or a foolish pioneer? I would think of him as a brave pioneer because it isn’t easy to live on the edge like that.”
Kress knows something about being a pioneer. In the early 1970s, he came up with the idea of using decoys and recorded bird calls to attract seabirds to islands. He was trying to re-establish a colony of Atlantic puffins on Eastern Egg Rock, a Maine island where hunters had wiped out the birds a century before.
But the method he was using – moving chicks to the island and hoping they’d come back to nest there – was not working. They weren’t returning.
Then Kress had a revelation.
“It kind of hit me one day that the thing that was missing for this highly social bird, that always nests in colonies, was others of its kind,” Kress said. “I put out some decoys, and almost immediately puffins started appearing.”
He also broadcast puffin calls, because puffins are vocal. And he put out mirrors because although the birds were savvy enough to lose interest in an immobile model, they seemed “fooled” into believing their own reflections were peers, Kress said. As of last summer, Eastern Egg Rock was home to 172 puffin breeding pairs. And Kress’ method, known as “social attraction,” is now used worldwide to start seabird colonies on islands.
That includes in New Zealand, where gannets are not endangered but are clustered in just a few places. Wildlife officials would like them to be “more geographically diverse,” said Chris Bell, a conservation ranger who is the sole human inhabitant of Mana Island, where Nigel made his home.
Mana was deemed a good site for a gannet social attraction project because invasive predators have been eradicated and because the birds, with their fertilizing guano, could help “restore the kind of ecosystem [the island] had before humans arrived,” he said in an email.
Yet such projects depend on birds that defy their deep instinct to return to their birthplace – a tendency known as philopatry. In other words, success depends on Nigels.
“Without birds like Nigel, there wouldn’t be any new colonies. The species would be locked into this philopatric pattern,” leaving it vulnerable to wipeouts caused by introduced predators or sea-level rise or illness, Kress said. “He’s a hero! He gave it all for the species. He tried.”
The Mana project began in 1988 when schoolchildren first painted gannet decoys, but it was not until 2015 that a real one – Nigel – showed up. By staying, Bell said, Nigel acted as a living, breathing advertisement for the spot. In recent months, after Bell and colleagues moved the speakers playing gannet calls closer to the decoy colony, three more gannets showed up.
Gannets “like to see that other birds have gone there before they trust a place,” he said. “The three regular birds we currently have are Nigel’s legacy.”
Despite the bird’s isolation, Bell said New Zealand conservation officials never considered relocating Nigel. Gannets are known to fly thousands of miles between Australia and New Zealand; Mana Island is located just two miles from New Zealand’s North Island.
“Nigel was a free agent,” said Bell, who added that officials are performing a necropsy to confirm the bird’s cause of death, which they suspect was old age. His infatuation with a decoy “was odd behaviour for a gannet, but every group has their individuals.”
Many seabirds attracted to islands by decoys leave early on, Kress said. Nigel may simply have seen advantages in Mana that his fellow gannets did not: A sense of peace, a lack of crowds, a strife-free relationship.
“Either they’re going to attract other members of their kind, or they’ll give up and they’ll leave,” Kress said. “Nigel could have done either of those things. But time caught up with him.”